Written by Charis Boersma, elementary school music teacher for Sun Prairie Area School District, in collaboration with Faith Boersma, local activist, and Ben Ratliffe, member of Madison-DSA.
In the midst of the worst spike in COVID-19 cases in the United States to date, a small but loud minority across the country appears determined to restart in-person schooling. In the most recent count from Public Health of Madison and Dane County (PHMDC), there were 5,758 new positive cases in the first two weeks of November, a three-fold increase since the start of October. Groups demanding schools return to in-person instruction base their argument on conflicting data about infection and transmission rates among children, while completely ignoring impacts on educators and staff — especially those in higher risk situations.
Charis Boersma is an elementary music teacher in the Sun Prairie Area School District (SPASD) who says that her employer is actively choosing to put her life in danger. Boersma is currently pregnant which, per the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), puts her at a seventy percent greater risk of death than non-pregnant individuals should she contract COVID-19. Although the school reopening plan purports to limit contact between both staff and students by creating cohorts, she will be required, at eight months pregnant, to push a cart through her school to teach twenty-two different cohorts of K-2 students. While the district claims to follow PHMDC guidelines for reopening, this work requirement flagrantly contradicts a key goal in PHMDC’s Emergency Order #10: limiting interaction among groups. Sun Prairie Area School District did not respond to Red Madison’s request for comment.
At the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year, the district launched a fully-virtual learning model; however, staff were required to report to buildings, even though no students were physically present. “High-risk” staff were granted accommodations to work from home, provided they submitted a doctor’s note. The district later transitioned to a hybrid model for K-2 students. On November 13th, the district emailed a letter to all of the elementary staff members who were currently working from home, informing them that they were being recalled to work in person, starting December 7th.
In a meeting about safety concerns with administration, Boersma was told that “teachers will have to make hard choices.” She responded with a formal letter to the administration of SPASD: “Would it be a hard choice to decide whether to get a paycheck or to protect the life of a loved one or yourself? No, I don’t believe that is a choice at all: it is simply a false dichotomy.” To this the administration claimed that they would continue to balance the safety of the staff with the educational needs of students.
Boersma contends being told that her so-called options — to endanger her life and that of her child, or leave her job, which also means losing income and insurance during the critical time of child birth — is one of numerous examples of discrimination that she and other women in the district have experienced. When pressed on the issue, human resources acknowledged the discriminatory nature of these options but still refused to offer alternatives.
In the letter announcing the recall to in-person instruction, the district claimed to have done all that could be done to allow a continuation of remote accomodation for high-risk staff, including filing requests for such accommodations with the Wisconsin Fair Employment Act (WFEA) and/or the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Without mention of the outcome of those requests, the letter continues, “Ultimately, we determined that allowing you to work remotely after December 7, 2020, when students are present in the building, would create an undue hardship on the District.”
Putting aside for a moment the question of why at-risk teachers aren’t being treated as part of “the District,” Boersma questioned whether the district had indeed legally processed the remote work requests as stated. The ADA accommodation process is intended to be a collaborative effort between employee and employer. How could she have been denied an ADA accommodation that she never asked for?
Boersma proceeded to request and submit the official ADA accommodation paperwork. It was sent back to her: Denied. She then asked to take time off under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) on an intermittent basis, getting a substitute teacher for the time she would be expected to teach K-2 in person, but continuing to offer virtual instruction to grades 3-5 from home. This too was denied. Finally, she requested a transfer to another position in the district that would allow her to continue in virtual instruction. This transfer option is one the district is legally obligated to offer under the ADA. Yet again, the request was denied.
The best the district would do was to allow her to continue to work from home one day per week — on Wednesdays, when the schools would be closed for deep cleaning — and require her to use FMLA time for the remainder. Using FMLA starting on December 7th meant her leave would run out shortly after she delivered her child. She would then be required to return to work while caring for a newborn or go on an unpaid leave, which would also mean losing her insurance. Given the options presented to her, Boersma initially believed this represented some progress: working one day a week would at least bring in some income and stretch the length of her FMLA, if only slightly.
But, the day before she was scheduled to go on FMLA, Boersma’s principal emailed a list of required tasks she must complete on the single day she would be working each week. The list included attending four meetings, collaborating with her sub, teaching all of the 3rd-5th grade classes, and other duties as assigned. Boersma’s employer is now requiring her, as a condition of her intermittent FMLA, to do 60% of a full time job in 20% of the time, for 20% of the pay.
Boersma summed up her experience: “I feel like I have been raked over the coals again and again when my only goal was to keep myself and my baby safe and teach my beautiful students that music is one thing that can heal their souls in hard times.”
Boersma is not alone. On November 20, a letter signed by 200 SPASD teachers was submitted to the administration calling on them to delay the start of hybrid learning for K-2 students until it was safe. At an SPASD Board meeting on November 23, thirteen people submitted public comment unanimously voicing opposition to the current reopening plan. Teachers and parents alike expressed concerns about the grave dangers posed to staff, students, and the community at large by returning to in-person instruction at a time when community spread of COVID-19 has reached unprecedented levels and continues to claim many lives.
Second grade teacher Betsy Wangelin wrote, “We want all of our students to succeed every day. In order to do that they must be safe. Our staff must be safe. Our students need their classroom teachers – but currently we are short many amazing teachers due to an unprecedented amount of teachers taking leave due to unsafe working conditions.”
Lynn Montague, mother of three students in the district, wrote “Pushing forward with bringing more kids back into the schools at this time, while organizations all around us are pulling back, seems like a very strange response and definitely not a community focused one… It is unconscionable to add even one case of community spread during the current healthcare crisis.”
A growing number of Sun Prairie teachers are taking action to resist being put in harm’s way. Nearly half the elementary music department has resigned or gone on leave to avoid incurring the risks associated with in-person instruction. In one school, the majority of K-2 teachers have taken leave through the FMLA. The district is now scrambling to fill these vacancies, in some cases using student teachers without degrees, licenses, or union protection. The teachers’ union, the Sun Prairie Education Association (WEAC Region 6), has convened a Work Action group.
The people arguing for a return to in-person instruction, like the Dane County-based group organizing on Facebook as “Open Dane County Public and Private Schools,” claim recent data shows elementary-aged children are less likely to transmit COVID-19 and that in-person instruction can be carried out safely among them. In an op-ed for the Washington Post, however, physician and educator Dr. Leana Wen argues, “Without a national mandate for regular testing and trusted reporting, we simply won’t have evidence that there isn’t greater transmission in schools. As the aphorism goes, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”
The most recent data, both locally and nationally, is far from conclusive that reopening elementary schools is safe. While in April children accounted for about 2% of cases, as of the end of November, they made up 12%, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). The AAP further states that while severe illness among children has been rare, there’s been a 29% increase in new cases in this population since mid-November — and that there is “an urgent need to collect more data on longer-term impacts of the pandemic on children.” In Sun Prairie alone, 15 students have tested positive since the pandemic began and 8 staff members have tested positive in just the last two weeks.
There is one population certainly at risk and currently receiving the least consideration from district administrators: the teachers and staff. According to the CDC, between 42 and 51% of school employees are at increased risk from infection, and a study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that one in four teachers has a condition that puts them at high risk.
Public Health Madison & Dane County has set a metric for reopening schools for K-2 students at 54 or fewer new cases per day, sustained for four weeks. While this metric was met during a brief period in late summer, for the past two months in Dane County, daily cases have been a staggering five to eight times higher than that. In a post for the Association of American Medical Colleges, Benjamin Linas, an MD at Boston University who has advocated in the past for reopening schools plainly states: “You can only open your school safely if you have COVID under control in your community.” Clearly, “under control” is a descriptor that Dane County can not currently claim.
Boersma concludes with clarity and conviction: “The lives of teachers like me are being put in danger, and we find ourselves powerless to protect ourselves. I wish that the public had full knowledge as to what is actually happening in our schools and would stand up with educators. I want nothing more than to see my students learn and grow, but I can’t do that when my own life and that of my baby are in danger.”
Editor’s Note: Since we began the process of publishing this article, Public Health Madison & Dane County has released new recommendations for schools considering re-opening and has even said that the department believes “schools can operate safely and effectively.” We at Red Madison are dubious, but not surprised by what appears to be another capitulation by Public Health Madison & Dane County to the interests of the local business community and a vocal minority of parents. From the very start of Forward Dane to the return of students for in-person instruction at UW Madison, our community has been without firm leadership when it comes to putting health and safety first. On both of those occasions, a failure to reject the premise that we could return to business as usual led to spikes in new COVID-19 cases, each worse than the last. We have not forgotten that just last month, hospitals around the state were overwhelmed with seriously ill COVID-19 patients. We have no wish to return to those desperate circumstances.
As of this morning, 30,684 Dane County residents have tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic and 135 people have died. As Madison Teachers Inc. Vice President Michael Jones put it in a recent letter to the editor, only ghouls would push to open schools in the middle of a pandemic.