October 22, 2021

‘Critically High’ COVID Rate Drops, Divisions Still Prevalent at Local Level

The number of Wisconsin counties where the spread of the COVID-19 virus is considered “critically high” dropped from 16 to 8 in state health officials’ weekly update issued October 20.

The eight counties with a critically high case level are Barron, Rusk, Washburn, Buffalo, Trempealeau, Green Lake, Forest and Oconto. The case rate is “very high” in 62 counties and “high” in two counties — Douglas and Florence counties.

Student Mental Health Services

Students, educators and groups including the Wisconsin Education Association Council are advocating for more mental health support services using federal pandemic relief funds. WEAC is urging local associations to partner with administrators in developing plans for the federal funds that address mental health. Governor Tony Evers has also stepped up with additional mental health funding using funds available to states.

Several La Crosse students urged their district to use some relief money to fund mental health supports for the student body, just as statewide standardized assessment results from the last school year became available. “Addressing test scores and statistics should not be the basis of which a successful recovery from this pandemic is judged upon,” a La Crosse Central High School junior told the school board there. “You should be supporting students in a way that gives them the ability to function in their best and healthiest state.”

Public School Enrollment Dips

New data shows that public school enrollment failed to rebound from last year’s big 3-percent drop. Enrollment in public school districts dropped 0.5 percent from September 2020 to September 2021 — less than the 3-percent drop seen last year but still larger than the 0.4 percent decline reported in 2019.

Wisconsin public schools will start to feel the COVID-19 enrollment declines in their general school aid, because funding is determined by a three-year rolling average of school enrollment that includes last year’s steep drop in the number of students at Wisconsin public schools.

Masks, Other Precautions in Schools

WEAC continues to recommend universal masking in schools as recommended by health experts, but precautions to control the spread still vary widely across Wisconsin. In the School District of Jefferson, officials weighed next steps after the county health department said additional measures need to be taken to address the spread of the virus.

The idea of parents suing school boards over lack of COVID-19 protocols has garnered media attention after parents in Waukesha and Fall Creek each filed federal lawsuits. Under Wisconsin law, it is difficult to sue local governmental bodies for policy decisions although there are circumstances where courts will allow such claims, legal experts say.

While some parents are looking to hold districts accountable for lack of safety measures, other individuals are seeking recalls of school board members who voted to follow medical expert recommendations. Reports show Wisconsin, one of 12 states that allow residents to recall school board members without requiring specific reasons, ranks No. 2 in the nation for the number of recall attempts during the pandemic. The next recall attempt set November 2 in the Mequon-Thiensville School District.

Since March 2020, Wisconsinites have attempted recall petitions against 36 members in 16 school districts, with pandemic safety measures cited in at least 14 districts. Only California, with a population six times the size of Wisconsin, has attempted recalls in more school districts, 28, with at least 15 relating to COVID protocols.

Most recall attempts nationally have failed, and individuals seeking recalls do not necessarily have students enrolled in the district. Protesters, who have disrupted school board meetings in communities from Kenosha to Eau Claire, frequently lump mask disputes with a push against educators teaching honest, inclusive American history. Political experts have said the larger goal is to keep base Republican voters engaged leading up to the important 2022 fall elections using hot-button issues and often, misinformation about what students learn in school.

“Groups pushing for recalls, echoing nationwide Republican talking points, have said they wanted new board members who would reject guidance from health officials, make masks optional, and clamp down on teaching about the harms of racism,” a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article stated. “