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Stroebel: Make teachers ‘essential workers’

By M.D. Kittle 

Wisconsin Spotlight  | Nov. 11, 2020

MADISON — As more schools move to academically deficient virtual learning models amid rising COVID-19 numbers, one lawmaker is calling on districts to make their teachers “essential” workers.

“It’s important that we not lose yet another year of educational instruction,” said state Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville) Monday in a press release. “We need school staff to demonstrate the same commitment our communities have seen from first responders and healthcare professionals.”

A review of Wisconsin’s 421 schools districts finds few have declared their employees essential, an act that would give districts wider control over in-person learning.

The U.S. Department of Education in April declared teachers essential workers to encourage reopening schools.

Teachers unions in Madison, Milwaukee and elsewhere in Wisconsin have pressured their districts to shut down in-person learning. Madison Metropolitan School District in ordering extended virtual learning through the first semester, acknowledged the education model is inferior to in-person learning and that students, particularly those lost in the achievement gap, were falling behind.

While Act 10, Republican-led public employee collective bargaining law reforms, shifted teachers unions’ outsized power back to taxpayers, school districts in Wisconsin’s more liberal cities have routinely bowed to union demands. Madison Teachers, Inc. voiced early and often its opposition in-person leaning. It has unrealistically called for all virtual learning until local health officials report zero new cases for 14 consecutive days.

“The disparate rate of COVID-19 infection, severe illness, and death among people of color and working communities further spotlights the structural racism and economic inequality that exists,” MTI said in a press release issued in June, not long after the school year ended. “Returning to school in-person puts our Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) children and families at greater risk without a promise of greater support.”

Stroebel noted that his Senate district, Hartford Joint 1, has suspended in-person instruction for the next month following an increase in staff testing positive for the coronavirus. While 17 district employees tested positive, only eight students had a positive test result as of Tuesday, according to the district’s website.

The senator said district officials told his office that they are struggling to keep staff on the job, reporting more than 40 absences on any given day due to COVID and “various types of leave and vacation.”

An essential designation could help districts limit non-illness-related absences to help schools work in the best learning interest of students and their families, Stroebel said.

“Shutting down in-person instruction makes it difficult for parents and students to consistently plan for and work through this school year,” Stroebel said. “By declaring teachers to be ‘essential workers’ it is my hope that district administrators and school boards will implement the necessary personnel policies to ensure that our state’s children receive the high quality instruction they deserve.”

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