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360: Getting back-to-school safely amid an ongoing pandemic

Posted at 6:57 AM, Aug 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-24 07:57:47-04

MILWAUKEE — Whether masks are mandatory or optional for your child, or whether your student is heading back into the classroom in-person or is staying virtual for now, this back-to-school season will be a challenge for many families.

To gain multiple perspectives, we're going 360. We talk with the president and CEO of the National Black Child Development Institute about navigating "interrupted learning." We also talk to the Wisconsin Association of School Nurses about how to monitor your child's mental and physical health this year. We also talk to a parent who is considering pulling her kids from in-person learning and keeping them at home due to a lack on COVID-19 mitigation and to a high school student who is enjoying being back in the classroom after a year behind the computer screen. That's where we start.

360: Getting back-to-school safely amid an ongoing pandemic

"Seeing all my friends is just way better than being on a computer screen," said Peyton Weiss, a senior at Rufus King High School.

Weiss and all of the other students at MPS are required to wear masks in school buildings and must follow other COVID-19 safety protocols. Weiss said she has no problem with that, as long as she physically gets to be back in the classroom.

"Being virtual, not everybody was paying attention. You know? It was really hard to focus. Then, here, it's one on one and you can ask questions a lot easier and I feel like I'm going to be learning a lot more this year than I did last year, which is good," she said.

Less than an hour south, in the Kenosha Unified School District, masks are optional. As cases surge and concerns grow over the Delta variant, parent Cortne Minalga says she may keep her kids out of the classroom.

"If the board decides to stick with masks optional, I will definitely be considering keeping them home," said Minalga.

The school board is set to meet on Aug. 24 to discuss the plan.

Cortney is a nurse herself and has a 6th grader and a 4th grader in school. She said with her kids too young to be vaccinated, she has to do what she can to protect her family.

"In my opinion, keeping your kids safe and healthy is following all of the recommending mitigation that all of the governmental agencies, all of the medical agencies, the Wisconsin DPI, the Kenosha County Health Department - all these mitigation efforts and at this point Kenosha Unified School District is not aligned with those mitigation efforts. And so, I'm kind of perplexed right now as to why it hasn't changed yet," said Minalga.

School nurse Jamie Trzebiatowski says proper mitigation does work.

"There is good evidence out that that shows schools are a safe place to be for in-person instruction, even with fairly high community spread, with layered mitigation in place," said Trzebiatowski.

She says students should be vaccinated if eligible, and she says masks and social distancing can all help slow the spread. She also says, this year, for the kids back in school, being extra cautious if you become sick - even with the flu or a common cold - is critical.

"We'd rather have people stay home and get cleared then to come to school and wait and see what happens," said Trzebiatowski.

Behind the masks and the guidelines, students have real learning impacts due to the pandemic. Leah Austin is the president and CEO of the National Black Child Development Institute. She argues, whether students are staying virtual or are heading back into the classroom, we need to be paying attention to how we talk about concepts like "interrupted learning."

"There's been some pause maybe and progression on certain concepts and ideas. But, I think we can spend equal amount of time actually trying to understand what they have learned," said Austin.

She said that could mean focusing less on test scores for the time being and being more focused on lived experiences. She said making sure districts have resources like school nurses and counselors is essential to getting back-to-school safely as well.

"Those are the sorts of people, adults, that students will really be leaning in on and need. Right? If we think about potential traumatic experiences that students will be bringing back physically or in an online capacity - far too many schools don't have those sorts of supports and resources available to them," said Austin.

One thing is for sure: nobody was expecting to be starting yet another school year concerned about this pandemic, 18 months after it began. Each person we spoke to says the only way through this is together - as a community.

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