LOUISVILLE, KY – MARCH 17: A teacher walks among the the masked students sitting in a socially distanced classroom session at Medora Elementary School (Photo by Jon Cherry/Getty Images)
COVID cases reached an all-time high after the holidays in Wisconsin, yet politicians and school systems are failing to protect our communities’ overall health and especially the health of our teachers, staff, and students.
President Biden’s comment last week criticizing virtual learning did not help the current situation at all. “We provided the states with $130 billion with a ‘b’ to specifically keep our students safe and schools open,” he said. “Funding for ventilation, ventilation systems to the schools, social distancing classrooms, even larger classrooms. On buses and everything from bus drivers to buses, to the actual bus.”
Biden was bragging about throwing money into a fire, where COVID is the never-ending fire.
Amy Mizialko, president of the Milwaukee Teachers Association, said Biden’s comment failed to recognize that funding isn’t the issue. “This district is virtual because there simply aren’t enough adults due to the sheer number of positive COVID cases among school staff to safely open schools… The government also gave billions with a ‘b’ to the airline industry and you still can’t fly a plane without a pilot.”
Urban schools are also at higher risk of transmitting the virus due to the nature of the work that many people do who send their kids to public schools.
At the very least, school districts like Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) should have given educators more than a 12-hour notice after holiday break to prepare for virtual learning. But at least it made the right choice not to go back in person.
By contrast, schools in Greendale have chosen to continue in person learning, where one school had 10 teachers missing or calling in sick, including their school principal.
And in certain charter schools in Milwaukee where the student to teacher ratio is 54:1, they chose to remain open for in-person learning, which is deplorable.
Virtual learning requires longer prep times, which is already extremely limited. Sudden and inconsistent moves from higher-ups who aren’t in the classroom make it impossible for educators to accurately prepare for future dates to remain virtual or not.
The decision to close for an extra day to give teachers time to prepare, get tested for COVID, and for all schools to go virtual could have saved the health of so many, both physically and mentally.
This issue shouldn’t just be focused on what individual school systems are, and are not, doing. This is a governmental problem.
Our elected officials – mayors and alders, county execs and supervisors, along with the governor and the state legislature – need to enact policies that protect the health of our educators and students. (A new report by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign notes how the legislature and the Wisconsin Supreme Court tied the hands of the governor and the secretary of health services, who were trying to protect us.)
By not enacting a statewide mask-mandate or promoting stronger COVID protocols as new variants come our way, the state will continue to fail the most vulnerable.
As it does so, we have to look to other institutions that can protect us. That is why it was so heartening to see the strong response by the teachers’ union in Milwaukee. Like the teachers’ union in Chicago, the Milwaukee teachers’ union put the health of their members and of the students ahead of the market’s demand to get back to work. On Monday, Jan. 10 at 9:00 pm, on a school night, the Chicago teachers union’s delegates voted 389 to 226 in favor of suspending the work action and returning Tuesday. The CTU’s 25,000 members are expected to vote later in the week on whether to approve the potential agreement.
Elected officials have shown us they care more about profits, putting the health of working class people at risk by making them go to work and put their children back in schools. That’s why we’ll need even stronger collective action in the future, not just from unions but from social justice activists across the board, to protect our health and well-being in the days ahead.
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