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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

As Schools Grapple With Wisconsin’s COVID-19 Surge, Teachers’ Unions Reiterate Call For State Action

Emily Files
A sign in the hallway at Pilgrim Lutheran School, a private school in Wauwatosa that reopened with in-person instruction at the beginning of the school year.

COVID-19 cases, along with hospitalizations and deaths, have reached a high point in Wisconsin. State leaders are calling it a crisis.

In response, teachers’ unions from the state’s largest districts renewed their demand Wednesday that Gov. Tony Evers and Health Secretary Designee Andrea Palm mandate distance learning for all schools. And some schools are reconsidering their initial plans.

>>Wisconsin Teachers' Unions Call For Statewide Virtual Start To School Year

The worsening numbers pushed Milwaukee College Prep, a network of charter schools, to reluctantly delay its reopening schedule.

“There’s a huge degree of frustration that we’re just not in a better place,” said CEO Robb Rauh.

He says they were hoping to switch from virtual to in-person learning around this time. But COVID-19 numbers in the north side census tracts where most Milwaukee College Prep students live took a turn for the worse recently.

“Last week we were up significantly, like 60 new cases per 100,000 and testing [positivity] rates over 10%,” Rauh said. “And this week it went up even more, over 20% of tests being positive and 113 new cases per 100,000. The numbers are bleak right now.”

So, Milwaukee College Prep is sticking with virtual learning, even though Rauh says it’s far from ideal for student learning and engagement.

Milwaukee Public Schools is also continuing with distance learning “until further notice,” according to spokesman Earl Arms. The next update on the district’s reopening plan is scheduled for a special board meeting on Oct. 27.

>>School Year Start Virtually For All MPS Students

MPS initially said some schools might transition to hybrid learning mid-October, but that is not happening.

Anna Luberda, a 6th grade reading teacher at MPS’ Golda Meir School, says it’s been hard to build relationships with students over the computer screen.

“It has been so difficult to have these online classes because I don’t get to see them, I don’t get to know them as well as I could,” Luberda said. “But I understand and am grateful that we’re not being exposed to the pandemic and we’re not exposing students to it. Because I think we all understand that just the potential of spreading COVID by having students come back to school is too much.”

The Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, along with teachers’ unions in Madison, Racine, Green Bay and Kenosha want state officials to stop schools from holding in-person instruction amid the current COVID-19 surge.

“We cannot rely on individuals to make good decisions in a pandemic,” said MTEA President Amy Mizialko at a press conference in Madison Wednesday. “It requires a systemic response. This is why we have government, it’s why we pay taxes, and it’s why we have elections.”

But during a media briefing Tuesday, Gov. Evers said he still supports schools’ ability to make that decision themselves.

“We’re seeing some cases in our schools, but that is not the majority of what we’re seeing that’s driving this,” Evers said. “And school districts are doing a good job. If it’s causing a significant interruption in their education, they’re going virtual.”

Some schools that are open in person believe they have strong enough safety protocols in place, even with rising case numbers in the community. Joan Shafer is CEO of Seton Catholic Schools, a private K-8 voucher school network in Milwaukee.

“We are seeing an uptick in people getting exposed [to COVID-19] outside of the schools, but we’re really rigorous in moving our staff and kids to a digital pathway and isolating them,” Shafer said. “I believe with the layers of protection we’re taking, we can keep our students and faculty safe and healthy.”

Seton groups students in “pods” of 10-12 and moves the entire pod to remote learning if a student has been exposed to COVID-19. Shafer says so far, this and other safety measures have prevented COVID-19 spread within Seton schools and enabled children who want to learn in person to do so.

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Emily is WUWM's education reporter.
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