Over 500 combined Madison Metropolitan School District staff and Madison community members signed an open letter urging the district School Board and superintendent Dr. Carlton Jenkins to reconsider their plan for returning to in-person classes starting next week.
The letter, sent this past Monday, cites staff and community members’ worries that “the lack of inoculations will lead to an increased risk of spread throughout our community, including those students and their families at home who could have the disease brought home to them”.
Starting next Tuesday, kindergarten students and teachers in the Madison Metropolitan School District will return to in-person classes as part of the first phase of the district’s hybrid reopening plan. This plan will include in-person classes along with concurrent virtual learning for those students who don’t feel safe being in-person. Kindergarten will be followed by the first and second grade levels during the week of March 16th and then the 4K grade level in the following week.
Brad Vonck is a history teacher at Madison’s East High School. He says that there is a level of distrust among many school staff members as to whether the district administration has their safety and well-being in mind.
“We’re told that our input would be valued in any reopening decision, yet we were blindsided that we were going back. So, there’s an immense feeling of broken trust and devaluing of the lives of teachers, and that is combined with and cannot overshadow the historic and presently perpetuated mistreatment of staff of color.”
Vonck also added that while this letter addresses the immediate concerns of teachers regarding the return to in-person classes, it is just the beginning of a larger conversation about the inequities that need to be addressed by the district.
This letter also comes as staff members of East High School have announced that they will join staff members of La Follette High School in a “teach-out” Thursday morning. The purpose of which will be to stand in solidarity with the district staff that are already working in buildings as well as elementary school staff set to return next week. The teach-out will consist of teachers moving their online classrooms to the lawn of the high schools to emphasize the dangers of in-person classes.
Amanda Pustz is also a teacher at East High School that will participate in the teach-out. She says that the public presentation depicting that all MMSD staff are on board with the district’s plan to reopen is inaccurate.
“We all want to be on board, we all want to teach our students in-person, nobody likes this virtual teaching. That said, we are concerned that we’re being asked to do something that is unsafe. It particularly seems very strange when vaccine rollout for educators across the state is starting to happen. Why the rush … why the rush?”
Pustz also mentioned that she and others have worries about whether the infrastructure and available ventilation of certain classrooms across the district will make them safe for in-person learning.
MMSD did hire a third-party organization, a local building company called McKinstry, to assess the safety of the protocols put in place prior to the return to classes. That company found that safety protocols taken by the Madison Metro School District had met the standards set by CDC, Dane County, and professional ventilation standards.
School staff and childcare providers in the state became eligible for the vaccine on March 1st after they were prioritized as a part of the remaining 1a phase of vaccinations. However, delays in the supply of COVID-19 vaccinations have not made the vaccine readily available to most school staff and childcare providers. Plans to turn the Alliant Energy Center into two vaccination clinics dedicated specifically to educators and childcare workers has also been pushed back until March 15th – two weeks from the originally planned date.
Dough Voegeli is the operations section chief for COVID-19 response from Public Health Madison Dane County. He thinks that increases in the scheduled supply of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines and the introduction of the new one shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine in the coming weeks spells positive news for the vaccination process.
“Once we have a stable supply and we know what we’re getting in week to week, which I think we’re on the cusp of as well, then we can just start sending out a lot more invites and getting a lot more people.”
Voegeli also mentioned that he is hopeful that the county will finish vaccinating the 1a category as well as the 1b category, which includes some 17,000 school staff and childcare workers, sometime by the end of March.
As of right now, the district’s plan for coordinating vaccination plans amongst teachers will use a lottery system to determine the order for which teachers will be vaccinated. Special education and other staff currently teaching in-person will receive priority in this process. There has been no indication that elementary school staff will receive similar priority behind this initial group.
Andrea Graham is a second grade teacher at Franklin Elementary who signed the letter sent to district administration. She is also a union representative with Madison Teachers Inc, or MTI, the union representing MMSD teachers. She says that while she’s personally comfortable with returning to in-person classes, she’s heard various feelings from teachers at schools across the district.
“There’s hesitancies about going back, there’s excitement about going back, there’s feelings of ‘well I’m o.k.’ or ‘I’m feeling o.k. about this’, but, then you hear from colleagues that don’t feel o.k. or are not feeling supported by their administration or even the district overall.”
MTI has also released a statement calling on local, state, and federal officials to make the vaccine and other resources to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 widely available within all school districts, especially MMSD.
An anonymous first grade teacher in Madison feels that the whole reopening process by the district has been unorganized and lacked consistency in its communication with teachers.
“They released the start date to the general public only minutes after releasing it to staff, so we didn’t have time to react and converse about that start date before parents got that information as well … we feel extremely taken advantage of when we receive information alongside the general public.”
However, there are some MMSD staff who are embracing the return to classes with open arms. Michelle Kemp is a second grade teacher at Chavez Elementary School who did not include her name on the open letter to the MMSD administration. She says that, while she understands worries of some of her fellow colleagues and sees herself as being of the minority opinion, she feels the return to in-person classes will be good for teachers and students.
“Especially reaching those kids that don’t have everything that they need at home to support their learning and I just know that I can do so much more for them in-person even if it is with restrictions. So as much as it’s going to be hard and it’s a whole new way of thinking once we’re in the classroom with all the restrictions, I’m really opening up with open arms.”
This want for teachers and students to return to in-person classes is widely held by many families and members of the general public so that parents can get themselves and their kids back to operating on a pre-pandemic basis. According to a survey of families in the district conducted by MMSD, about two-thirds of kindergarteners will return to in-person classes starting next Tuesday, reports The Cap Times.
Another second grade teacher in Madison, who wished to remain unnamed, says she feels there is a level of misunderstanding and blame regarding teachers and the delay to reopen schools emanating from some in the general public.
“I know that there are people in the general public who are really mad at teachers and seem to kind of blame us for not wanting to go back or whatever, but maybe not realizing what the conditions are like or what we’re being asked to do: not only to risk our health and safety to do this but we have all these questions about how it will work and how we’ll make things work and those questions aren’t really being answered.”
This same teacher also emphasized how she doesn’t want there to be any confusion about what she and other teachers ultimately want, which is the same thing that many that families, students and the broader community wants as well.
“I don’t want any families to feel that I don’t value the kids or that I’m not thinking of them first because I really am, and I don’t want anyone for a minute to think that I don’t care or I don’t want their kids to be learning or anything like that cause that’s not true”
Reporting for WORT news, I’m Ryan Wollersheim
(Image Courtesy: Chali Pittman/WORT on Flickr)