State of Education: Divisions Continue as COVID Cases Spike among Children
Updated September 30, 2021
The rate of new COVID-19 cases in Wisconsin is highest among school-age children, and schools are reporting more than twice as many outbreaks as at the same time last year, state health officials said. School districts, including in Wisconsin Dells, Crandon and around suburban Milwaukee, are moving to hybrid learning and virtual instruction less than a month into the school year. Students at Mishicot High School, where there is no mask requirement, won’t be returning to the classroom until October 11th at the earliest since more than 28-percent of the student body is out sick.
Angry outbursts from anti-masking groups continue to disrupt school board meetings in districts of all sizes, from Waterloo to Sparta to Kenosha. The behavior has Wisconsin’s top education officials calling for civility, including WEAC President Peggy Wirtz-Olsen, State Superintendent Jill Underly and Wisconsin Association of School Boards Executive Director John Ashley.
The chaos nationally has prompted the National School Boards Association to send a letter to President Biden asking for help to protect students, school board members and educators who are susceptible to acts of violence from threats to their districts, families and personal safety.
Where WEAC Stands
WEAC President Peggy Wirtz-Olsen began the school year with a firm call for universal masking for students and staff, vaccinations for all adults in schools, and educators included in school decisions – which should be based on science.
Since mid-September, WEAC has hosted NEA President Becky Pringle, First Lady Jill Biden and U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona as part of our efforts to amplify our message about safe and healthy schools.
Standoffs at School Board Meetings
Threats against school board members and recall efforts are popping up in rural, suburban and urban districts. And board members aren’t the only ones being tormented. Teachers have been followed to their cars, berated in the parking lot and targeted on social media. The threatening actions are intimidating ordinary citizens and educators who are now afraid to show up to school board meetings to voice their opinions, school leaders say.
The Sparta Area School District has become perhaps the most contentious battleground in the southwest region of Wisconsin over mandatory masks to thwart COVID-19. A school board meeting September 28 erupted in loud outbursts from opposing sides of the mask issue. In Sparta, a group of parents started recall petitions for two board members for listening to the county health experts. And in Eau Claire, the board postponed their meeting for a week after a handful of people refused to wear masks despite district rules.
In Fort Atkinson, one woman was thrown out for disrupting the school board meeting as the mask requirement was revisited following the student death.
In Kenosha, about 70 Kenosha Unified School District residents mad about the mask requirement voted at the district’s annual meeting to reduce the salaries of School Board members and tied payment to attending meetings in-person. The group also passed an advisory vote to reduce the levy for fund student programs be reduced by $1.2 million.
The Kenosha board has not caved to the small-but-vocal group and is refusing to buckle when it comes to holding virtual meetings while the community faces high levels of outbreaks. Rather than embrace major cuts to learning resources for students in the classroom, the board will revisit the budget and set the levy later in October.
“A lot of people didn’t go to the annual meeting because they fear this group,” the Kenosha Unified School Board President said in an interview. “They feel they’re being bullied. So we lost that other side and that voice, which is too bad.”
“I had a lady chase me down the hall at a city council meeting,” the Kenosha board president said. “It’s getting really ugly,” she adds. “This is the kind of thing you have to deal with.”
Masking Protocols Continue to Shift
Many of the state’s largest school districts, such Madison, Green Bay and Milwakee, are requiring that masks be worn in school. The Milwaukee Teacher’s Education Association (MTEA) is also calling for a citywide mask mandate, saying it would help in the Milwaukee Public Schools fight against rising cases.
The vast majority of districts in the state’s rural areas, including Menomonie, do not require masks. Spiking COVID cases are leading some districts to ramp up safety measures, which Wirtz-Olsen applauded.
The Fort Atkinson School Board voted to require masks after a 13-year-old student whose mother said he had COVID-19 died. The board previously declined to have a mask mandate after anti-maskers expressed opposition. In Mondovi, where the school board has repeatedly refused to require masks and relaxed quarantining rules, a teen died after testing positive and experiencing a number of health issues following diagnosis.
Madison and Milwaukee school districts now require staff vaccinations, and Monona Grove is moving toward vaccination requirements.
Divisions on Quarantining
The numbers of students in quarantine continue to balloon in schools from Chippewa Valley to Green Bay, but some school boards have voted to relax quarantine requirements – leaving it up to parents to decide whether to send children to school even in instances of close contact. Along with Mondovi, the Phillips School Board voted to relax quarantining requirements recommended by medical experts. In both places, County Health Departments are continuing to issue quarantining notices.
Educators Stand Up for Safety, Equity
In districts such as Monona Grove and Madison, local unions are meeting with administrators on a weekly basis to be sure educators are listened to in all school safety decisions. Making moves to be part of those regular communications are recommended as a key organizing strategy, local leaders say.
Educators are encouraged to work with their local unions and school administrations if approached by parents with concerns, questions or threats about COVID protocol in the district.
Protecting Vulnerable Students
Shifting decisions about masks and quarantines is extremely concerning to many Wisconsin educators and families who are immunocompromised or have high risk health conditions. Some schools have even advised staff against talking to their students about masks or vaccinations, calling the topic “controversial.”
Some families are frustrated by the shifting rules in their districts, including one Hortonville parent quoted in a recent article saying, “They’re [school board] looking at this data and picking and choosing what they want to follow to please everyone in the district. Their job is not to please people in the district. Their job is to keep children safe.”
Across America, concerns about in-person learning without appropriate safety precautions are particularly acute for students at higher risk of illness or death from COVID-19 and in communities of color that have suffered disproportionately during the pandemic.