Wisconsin schools are ill-prepared for coronavirus

March 6, 2020 12:54 pm
NUTLEY, NJ - FEBRUARY 28: A researcher works in a lab that is developing testing for the COVID-19 coronavirus at Hackensack Meridian Health Center for Discovery and Innovation. (Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images)

NUTLEY, NJ – FEBRUARY 28: A researcher works in a lab that is developing testing for the COVID-19 coronavirus at Hackensack Meridian Health Center for Discovery and Innovation. (Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images)

My nine-year-old granddaughter became visibly upset watching TV, as images of people in surgical masks walking the streets in panic over the coronavirus crossed the screen. She wanted to know if she or her family was in danger. With television and social media, our children know about the global virus pandemic.

What should we be telling our kids? What should schools be telling our kids? How should our educational system prepare for a coronavirus outbreak?

These are all good questions.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is telling parents they should be asking their schools about plans that are in place in case the virus spreads to their communities and schools. But if we ask, will we get answers?

Here are just some of the questions that need to be addressed:

  • What should teachers tell students about the coronavirus?
  • What precautions should teachers and school officials be taking in the classroom and the school?
  • What should teachers be looking for in their students to know if they have the virus?
  • When should a school close and for how long?
  • Should a district close all its schools or just a single school that is infected?
  • How do school officials go about disinfecting a contaminated school?
  • How can students continue learning while their school is closed?

Going to the U.S. Department of Education website isn’t much help. The department’s website gives a lot of information from the CDC and does little to answer some direct educational questions. Consider the following:

The CDC recommends that we wash our hands frequently. How many hand washing opportunities do students have during the school day? When they line up to enter the school cafeteria, how many will wash their hands before they eat? In most schools, probably none. Should we squirt hand sanitizer for each student as they enter the cafeteria? Would that do any good?

The CDC suggests that we break students into smaller groups to slow down the spread of infections. Just how are we to do this with one teacher crammed into a classroom with 35 students?

The CDC suggests that if a school closes down, we could continue students’ education online. But many low-income and rural students lack broadband at home. In fact, they may not even have access to a computer. 

If there is an outbreak in our school district, do we close just the one school that shows infection or do we close the entire district?

These are educational questions that should be answered by educational leaders and experts in disease control.

School districts in Milwaukee and Madison have developed basic web pages telling the public that children should wash their hands frequently, but they do not state when this will happen in school. 

The Milwaukee Public School district has developed an internal document called “Pandemic Response Plan.” However, the plan emphasizes structural organization and how decisions will be made. It does not tell parents, teachers or principals what they should be doing in their schools beginning today, certainly not in a reader-friendly way. The plan is pretty much – here is how we go about developing a plan.

Large school districts such as Seattle are beginning to develop answers to the questions about controlling the spread of coronavirus. Students will wash their hands the first thing in the morning when they come into school, anytime a student uses the bathroom and right before eating. Seattle specifically states that washing hands is much better than using a hand sanitizing agent, so the Seattle plan tries to avoid using sanitizers, yet a local Milwaukee TV station showed kids here getting their hands sprayed right before lunch.

Both Madison and Seattle districts offer advice on to how to talk to children about the virus.

Miami is getting computers ready to send home with students if schools are closed. However, Seattle is going “old school” developing learning packets to send home knowing that many of its students do not have internet service.

These large school systems are doing this all on their own with minimum outside help. How are small Wisconsin districts with only a couple of administrators going to come up with a comprehensive plan without some template to follow? These education questions should be answered by state or national educational leaders.

School principals are unlikely to know these answers because they have gotten little direction from their central administration. Their central administration has gotten little from their state office of public instruction. Their state office has gotten little direction from the U.S. Department of Education. 

The information on the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s website on the coronavirus is pretty much a cut and paste set of links to documents from the CDC. It lacks the specific guidance that schools need.

Some individual school districts, like Seattle, have come up with well-developed plans to solve many of these problems. What we need is a clearinghouse to share the information. Telling each school and district to develop an individual plans is like telling everyone they should solve their own transportation problems by designing and building their own automobiles, roads, buses and trains from scratch.

Our kids deserve schools that are better prepared.

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Terrence Falk
Terrence Falk

Terrence Falk worked for more than 31 years as a Milwaukee Public School teacher and served for 12 years on the Milwaukee school board and as Milwaukee's representative to the Wisconsin Association of School Boards. He has written for Milwaukee Magazine, Shepherd Express, Science Magazine, Urban Milwaukee and School News.