Updated at 3:48 p.m. CT
On Monday, southeastern Wisconsin teachers’ unions and community groups organized a car caravan from Kenosha to Madison, calling for state action on school reopening.
It was part of a national day of action by public education advocates demanding states put teachers’ and students’ health first during the coronavirus pandemic.
Teachers’ unions in Wisconsin’s five biggest districts, along with several smaller districts, are asking Gov. Tony Evers and Health Secretary Designee Andrea Palm to mandate a virtual start to the school year. They are joined by community organizations Leaders Igniting Transformation, Voces de la Frontera and Youth Empowered in the Struggle.
“This is the time for Sec. Palm to take action,” Milwaukee Teachers Education Association President Amy Mizialko said. “It is what Wisconsin needs from her and from the governor right now. And we have every hope that she will do her job as the person in charge of the public health of this state.”
The Department of Health Services did not respond to questions Monday about whether Palm was considering a statewide shutdown of schools.
Some Republican lawmakers have speculated that Evers would take action to keep school buildings closed. In a media briefing Tuesday, Evers responded, saying he had no plans to issue a statewide order on school reopening and that the decision should be made locally.
“I have no secret plan,” Evers said. “I’ve spent a lot of time talking to school folks, I know a lot of them, spending most of my life in it. And I’m very proud of the work all districts are doing to determine what’s best for their students.”
Milwaukee Public Schools, along with Racine, Kenosha and Madison, are starting the year virtually. But many suburban and rural districts and private schools want to bring students back in-person because continuing with remote instruction could have detrimental academic, social and emotional effects on students.
Still, Mizialko says health needs to come first.
"Right now, the public health emergency is in a far more dangerous place than it was even a couple of months ago," Mizialko said. “We know that our sisters and brothers in neighboring communities are in an untenable situation right now, where children and staff are going to get sick.
According to the state Department of Health Services, most Wisconsin counties currently have a "high" coronavirus activity level.
Leslea Strauss teaches high school in the Oak Creek-Franklin school district, which is planning to bring students back five days a week, with a virtual alternative for families. Strauss is still figuring out what this new school year will look like for her.
“I’m not feeling awesome,” Strauss said. “Some of the plans are still up in the air, and I think myself and other teachers are kind of concerned about our personal safety.”
Milwaukee teacher Amber Mahaffy says she decided to participate in the car caravan to support educators like Strauss.
“[My daughter] asked me, ‘Mom, why are we doing this today? Because you get to stay home now, right?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, but there are hundreds of other parents out there across the state, and they have to go back to teach, and that’s not right,’ ” Mahaffy said. “So we're doing this for the teachers who have to go back to teach, who still have 30 students in the classroom, no social distancing, no mask requirements. That’s what this is about.”
Mahaffy teaches early childhood special education — one of the most difficult groups of students to educate remotely. But she says the extra work that goes into distance teaching is worth it because students and teachers will be kept safe from COVID-19.
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