Statewide Teachers' Union Wants Uniform Metrics To Guide Wisconsin School Closing Decisions

Nov 18, 2020

Updated 2:31 p.m. CST

As Wisconsin enters the holiday season grappling with its most severe coronavirus spread yet, schools continue to make varied decisions about whether to teach in-person or virtually.

The statewide teachers’ union wants that to change. The Wisconsin Education Association Council is asking the state for uniform rules about when schools should close.

“Without this statewide approach, Wisconsin is sending a perilous mixed message of hands-off when it comes to schools,” WEAC President Ron Martin said during a media call Tuesday. “As long as school districts remain open for in-person instruction … and as long as unmasked high school football players are seen huddling together and high-fiving each other on the evening news, citizens will not take this pandemic seriously.”

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WEAC sent a letter to the state Department of Health Services on Nov. 13 asking for statewide school gating criteria. It suggests using standards developed by the Harvard Global Health Institute, which bases school reopening risk on community case incidence numbers.

The WEAC letter notes that some districts appear to make opening decisions not based on health metrics, but on community pressure.

“Educators, students and their families now more than ever need the consistency and predictability a mandatory statewide framework will bring,” Martin said.

Whether the state will do anything in response to WEAC’s letter is unclear. Gov. Tony Evers sounded reluctant to impose blanket criteria on schools during a press conference Wednesday. 

"School boards across the state are doing their best," Evers said. "We're seeing school closures, we're seeing schools that are, frankly, working well. And so it is a difficult thing for us to sit here and talk about it being one answer to 420-some school districts."

In Milwaukee, the local teachers’ union is calling on the city health department to shut down schools that are open in-person. While Milwaukee Public Schools is virtual, some private schools are teaching face-to-face.

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During a press call Tuesday, Milwaukee Interim Health Commissioner Marlaina Jackson did not say whether closing schools was under consideration.

“Tighter restrictions, in regards to the [local COVID-19] order, as we make those decisions we will be sure to share them,” she said. “And those decisions are being made weekly. So we will share that information as soon as those decisions are made.”

Previously, Jackson said that coronavirus outbreaks have been rare at Milwaukee schools with safety protocols in place.

The city of Racine Health Department has ordered schools in its jurisdiction to shutter buildings after Thanksgiving, until Jan. 15. Private schools there are considering legal action against the order.

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