The race to reopen schools

By: - January 4, 2021 7:00 am
HOUSTON - SEPTEMBER 7: Ckaris Williams, a teacher and Hurricane Katrina evacuee, prepares her classroom at Douglass Elementary School in Houston September 7, 2005 in Houston, Texas. Douglass was closed for budgetary reasons but the Houston Independent School District reopened the facility for children of evacuees from Hurricane Katrina. Williams taught at Frederick Douglass Elementary on the West Bank in New Orleans prior to the storm.

Photo by Dave Einsel/Getty Images

A pickup basketball game is in full swing on the playground at Milwaukee’s Fernwood Elementary the Saturday before Christmas. The pandemic is at its worst, and the prospect that all will receive a vaccine is still months away. For the teens, they just want to play ball. A lot of adults show the same reckless disregard. While the basketball game goes on in the shadow of Fernwood, the question is, when will these school doors finally swing open? Will it be safe?

We watched health care workers on TV be the first to get the COVID vaccine. Some announced that they now felt safe to hug their own children. Unfortunately, that may not be totally true; it may not be safe.

While immunization effectiveness rates for the vaccines are about 95%, this really means those who get the vaccine may, in fact, still catch COVID but have side effects so slight that they will feel nothing yet could still spread the virus to others. The rate of spread may be less, but it is still too early to know what that rate is. The vaccine is not effective for several days. A second shot is needed several weeks later.

How safe are schools?

In the media, we hear that the virus does not spread as much in schools as it does in the larger community. Educators, in particular, fear that schools may open without following strict safety measures because school officials will show such little concern given the low student infection rate. But the infection and transmission of the virus among students is not fully understood, according to the World Health Organization.

Epidemiologists believe that many students who catch the virus may be asymptomatic. Schools may not realize that they have a lot of students running around with COVID. We now know that the youngest children are the least likely to catch or transmit the virus. However, many Wisconsin schools closed this year not because so many students showed signs of the virus, but because schools were running out of teachers after many of them got sick. A common belief is that these teachers caught the virus outside of the school setting. But it is possible they caught the virus from asymptomatic students. 

Several parents who spoke before the Oak Creek – Franklin school board on December 10 referred to remarks made by Dr. Fauci to justify the school districts opening with full in-person instruction after the winter break. “Close the bars and keep the schools open,” Fauci told ABC recently.

This is a reversal of what Fauci had said only a few months ago. In May, he warned against opening schools too soon.

Fauci’s position, along with other medical experts, has evolved. It appears that schools are less likely to be the source of transmission compared to other environments. And schools can cut down the risk of transmission of the virus by  making sure masks are worn, social distancing is observed, buildings are properly ventilated and so on. Schools can conduct temperature checks at the doors. New, inexpensive, rapid virus tests have been developed which means that schools could begin testing students and staff in school on a regular basis. But as they discuss reopening for in-person instruction, not all schools have committed to do all those things. In-person education is not totally safe. 

Pressure from teacher unions

Back in August, the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) of southeast Wisconsin graded local school districts on what measures they were taking to ensure the safety of staff and students from the virus. Many school districts received a “D” or “F” from the teachers union.

On December 11, WEAC sent a letter to Gov. Tony Evers expressing disappointment that his office had not established state-wide criteria for opening and closing schools during the pandemic. WEAC challenged the Department of Health Services to exercise more authority and stated that schools should be closed for in-person education until January 15 and that teachers should be prioritized to receive the vaccine.

In most communities, health departments either lack the legal authority or the political will to force schools to close.


“Kids are struggling, families are struggling,” says Amy Mizialko, president of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association (MTEA). “The federal government should have paid families to stay home.” She side-steps the question of how well students are doing with virtual online education: “Some students are doing better; some are doing the same; and some are doing worse.” 

Safety is a major concern of teacher unions. The MTEA questions whether school districts will follow all the safety protocols they say they will follow. Will everyone really wear their face masks, maintain social distancing? There are already anecdotal instances of protocols that have not been followed and parents who have sent their children to school knowing that they are infected.

Our children are suffering

Our educational system has been turned upside down, and some educational experts say that is a good thing. Students are learning new skills through learning remotely. Some students are doing better online than they did in the classroom.

But that view of pandemic learning might be putting a brave face on what many parents see as an educational and emotional disaster. Parent after parent has come before school boards to describe how children have gone from stellar academic achievement to failure and frustration in the virtual classroom. Parents say that their children have become depressed, withdrawn, and sometimes even suicidal. They beg school officials to open the school to face-to-face learning for the sake of their children.

Only a handful of studies exist on the degree of academic loss or gain when instruction moves online. Studies before the pandemic showed overall poor results from the online programs that existed at the time. Reading skills showed some negative impact; math skills fared much worse. Overall, students handled virtual schooling poorly. 

These were studies of schools that were established specifically to educate remotely. The worst were online credit recovery programs. 

It will take some time to understand the impact of virtual education from public schools that had to establish online education without much preparation.

The quality of virtual instruction is likely to vary considerably from district to district. Teachers had to learn on the job when the pandemic changed everything, and there have been a lot of mistakes. Given the sheer number of schools using virtual education at this time, some positive programs and techniques may break through.

Many special education students have difficulty learning remotely. Even in schools where virtual education is the norm, the back door may be open to let special education students interact with their instructors. 

Back in September, Dawn Nordine, Executive Director of Wisconsin Virtual School, made it very clear that virtual learning does not work well with the youngest students. In effect, a parent or child caregiver becomes the instructor; the computer program only becomes an aid. For this reason, some schools that are considering a phased opening are beginning with children, K4 to grade 2, followed by other elementary students before moving to higher grades.

A definitive article on the challenges of educating children in the pandemic appeared on December 22 in USA Today: Experts say this is what children need to survive the pandemic.”

The article outlines how the stress of the pandemic is affecting children and what can be done about it. Students who have caregivers that can give academic support will likely do fairly well in virtual education. There are some simple things parents can do to make the experience better. 

Problems with virtual education may be mixed in with pressures on families caused by quarantining, job loss, and other pressures that have always been there but are now bubbling to the surface. Many families that already face economic hardship reside in larger cities which are using only virtual education.

The school building is a safe harbor from the rest of the world’s problems for many children. When the school doors close, that safe harbor is taken away, and the children have no place to go to get away from the turmoil around them.

Pressuring public schools

School boards are under tremendous public pressure to re-open schools  for in-person instruction.

On September 8, the Oak Creek-Franklin school board decided to move away from the infection rate as a hard standard for keeping schools open. Instead, it decided to use the data from its health department as “persuasive data” allowing the board to override the community infection rate guideline for keeping schools open. In Reedsburg, the Sauk County Health Department recommended that schools go virtual after Thanksgiving. The school board decided to keep schools open. A string of school systems that have been virtual these past few months plan to open in-person sometime in January. If closures must come in the future, school districts are more likely to target a single classroom, perhaps a single school, but if at all possible, not the entire school system.

Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has proposed legislation to pull $371 per child from school districts that have been at least 50% virtual and give that money to parents. Chris Thiel, Milwaukee Public Schools Legislative Policy Manager. outlines the impact this legislation would have on school districts across the state. Milwaukee would lose $26 million; Madison, around $9 million; Wauwatosa, $2 million.

“It is cheap and easy to write a press release that says, ‘Everyone go back to school.’ The real work is to do your job at the state level and provide the conditions that schools can open safely,” says Theil. “So, contrary to the word, ‘relief’ [in the proposed bill], it is literally the worst relief package in print in the United States of America.”

Retroactively punishing school districts by cutting aid for past actions is legally questionable. Even if this legislation passed both houses of the Wisconsin Legislature, it would be vetoed by the governor. The intent may be to pressure school districts to open their doors fully as soon as possible.

Mutations put children at risk

A new strain of the coronavirus has been found in Britain. Countries are closing their borders to visitors from the UK. However, medical experts believe that this new strain may be a mutation from as early as September which means this mutation could already be here. Another mutation is coming out of South Africa. Virus mutations are expected, and we may have to get new vaccinations on a regular basis the same way as we get flu vaccinations.

While the British mutation appears to be no more deadly nor the vaccine less effective against it, it may likely spread, and children may more likely contract it.

President-elect Joe Biden’s goal is to open schools within his first 100 days. If the mutations spread quickly to children, opening schools quickly will not happen.

Meanwhile, parents struggle with their kids who are hurting educationally and emotionally from the disruptions in their education, waiting for the pandemic to end.

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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.