MILWAUKEE — Many parents in the community are trying to figure out what to do after the Milwaukee School Board voted to keep the public school district virtual until Jan. 18, amid the recent spike in COVID-19 cases across the region.
For nearly four hours during a meeting Thursday night, school board members listened to the latest statistics of the city’s overall COVID cases as it relates to MPS, as well as testimonies from teachers and community members who are worried for the safety of their students and themselves.
“We all want the same thing for our students and staff — a healthy and safe learning and work environment,” said MPS Superintendent Dr. Keith Posley.
Through updates on the district’s COVID protocols, including how it reports positive cases, technology distribution for students and staff and maintaining a seamless transition between virtual and in-person instruction, among others, board members and community members asked the tough questions, with concerns over how to protect the MPS community.
“If we are to attract and retain teachers, we need to show current and future employees that this district cares about their health and safety; that you value our time and trust our professionalism. The greatest resource we have in this district is our dedicated staff, from our teachers and paraprofessionals to our essential workers, like building service helpers, lunch workers and bus drivers,” said community member Nicolo Orarato.
For some, doubts arose on whether a mask mandate would be enough or if the Centers for Disease Control’s quarantine guidance for vaccinated versus unvaccinated people offers adequate protection for those in the classroom.
“As much as we have a mask mandate in our schools, what I hear from many teachers is that it’s hard to - on the young end, it’s hard because little kids like to play and do whatever. Then, on the higher end, in terms of high school, teenagers, and so on and so forth, they don’t always follow instructions,” said MPS School Board President Bob Peterson.
The sole no vote, Director Megan O’Halloran, says she supports the case-by-case assessment strategy when it comes to school closures but believes it should also be applied when it comes to switching the entire district to virtual learning.
“I know that the numbers overall have been quite large, but when I look at the dashboard, I’ll see some schools that will have like 1 case or 2 cases, and so, I’m wondering why we should continue them remote next week if we continue to see 1 or 2 cases,” said O’Halloran. “Schools are open, I’m not saying they’re not, but why would they not be in person?”
The motion also includes the need to continue and improve COVID-19 mitigation strategies, like cleaning, adequate supplies, vaccine clinics, staffing or other support, as well as direct the Office of the Board of Governance to make a formal request to Acting-Mayor Cavalier Johnson, the Milwaukee Common Council and Milwaukee Health Commissioner Kirsten Johnson to reinstate the citywide mask mandate.
“Despite the fact that I want children and educators to be in the schools, I will support schools going back on the 18th. But I do want the administration to put more effort and focus solely on a transitional plan to ensure we don't shut down again,” said Aisha Carr, MPS School Board Director District #4.
To support students and families through the virtual learning extension, meals will still be offered at 50 Stop, Grab and Go locations across the city from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. every day. Also, while before and after school programs are closed for the time being, academic and athletic competitions are still going on as planned.