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Wisconsin Spotlight | June 12, 2020

MADISON — A southeast Wisconsin mom of two school-aged children is among a growing chorus of parents frustrated by the lack of a plan for the start of the 2020-21 school year. 

“Kids rely on routine and consistency and expectations and when that gets all thrown by the wayside, that’s hard,” said the parent, who asked not to be identified. 

After a lost semester of “virtual learning,” parents, students, teachers and administrators just want to know what’s next. They’ve not received a whole lot of guidance from the state Department of Public Instruction or the Evers administration, but that could be changing soon. 

While concern about COVID-19 and the return of a coronavirus outbreak like we saw in March and April has made planning “fluid,” according to public education officials, concerned parents say their districts and the state could at least come out with options. 

The mom who spoke to Wisconsin Spotlight said her daughter is an incoming freshman at Arrowhead High School and her son is going into seventh grade in one of Arrowhead’s feeder schools. Her daughter has a 504 Education plan to assist her in her learning. She struggled in the last three months of the school year because of the school’s lax distance learning program, necessitated by Gov. Tony Evers’ order closing down all schools in the state. 

“For my daughter, I feel less confident she is prepared in areas of math. I think my son has probably regressed in some areas,” the parent said. 

The mom, like other parents who have reached out to lawmaker offices, say they can’t go through another “virtual” school year like this past semester — when some kids, particularly more vulnerable students, received virtually no education.

“Parents can’t wait until August to find out what’s going to happen,” state Sen. Alberta Darling told Empower Wisconsin last week. “The governor has taken no leadership on this issue and that’s very disappointing because he used to be DPI superintendent.” 

The River Hills Republican is vice chairwoman of the Senate’s Education Committee. She said she’s heard nothing from Evers, his administration, or DPI about what public education will look like in the 2020-21 academic year.  

Wisconsin Spotlight reached out to DPI. An official said the COVID-19 pandemic is a “complex and fluid situation that requires some comprehensive and careful planning to incorporate all students and staff, and all aspects of our education system.”  

“The DPI has been working on an aggressive timeline with the governor’s office, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, and many other stakeholders to outline state guidelines for returning for school in the fall,” Chris Bucher, communications specialist for the agency, wrote in an email.

Those guidelines are expected to be posted on DPI’s website by the end of this month. For now, it’s a work in progress. 

Bucher pointed to an “Interim COVID-19 Infection Control and Mitigation Measure for Schools that DPI sent to district administrators. It’s no restart plan, noting that “any decision about the use of the school should be made in consultation with local health authorities …” Many of those local health authorities are forging health ordinances that come with more quarantines, lockdowns and “police powers.” 

There appears to be no real movement to reopen schools. 

“We’ve been told by the WI Department of Health Services (DHS) that 100% normal is likely impossible until a vaccine exists for COVID-19,” states an email from Arrowhead Union High School District Superintendent Laura Myrah, obtained by Wisconsin Spotlight. Myrah did not return a call seeking comment. 

“As our administration team plans all summer long, we will continue to work in concert with our local health authorities, our legal counsel, our liability insurance company, our school board, our staff members, our Waukesha County high schools, districts, our K-8 feeder districts etc. to develop and implement a safe, feasible, and educationally effective plan for summer school and next fall …” the superintendent added. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released its guidance for reopening schools. It includes face masks for students and staff, closed cafeterias, no recess, and the canceled extracurricular activities in outbreak areas. 

Parents like the mom who spoke to Wisconsin Spotlight say the guidelines would be extraordinarily difficult to follow, especially for younger students. 

“That’s just ridiculous,” she said, noting the data show COVID-19’s low impacts on people under 25. There were 137 deaths of people ages 24 and younger as of June 10, according to the CDC. There were 21 children age 15 and younger. That’s out of 112,967 total U.S. coronavirus-related deaths and nearly 2 million confirmed cases. 

That doesn’t dismiss the health concern, critics of closed schools say, but the numbers do provide context for what many feel has been an exaggerated risk and response to the pandemic. 

For some, like the mom who spoke to Wisconsin Spotlight, the shutdowns feel more political than rational. 

“The governor needs to get his act together. Our kids are not bargaining chips, they’re not pawns. They should not be the ones stuck in the middle of politics,” she said. “They’re not getting what they deserve, which is an education.” 

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