MILWAUKEE — As we reach the end of January, with the holidays in the past and the number of COVID-19 cases trending in a promising direction statewide, the conversations about how to proceed with educations are heating up.
There are school districts that have been using virtual learning as a way to keep students and staff safe since the start of the school year. Others have offered in-person learning this year, but paused over the holidays and switched to virtual learning to help limit the spread of the virus.
But now, many area school districts are voting for late January and Early February returns to in-person learning. Some, such as Milwaukee Public Schools, are still trying to determine what the next step should be.
To better understand all sides of these ongoing "back to school" conversations, we're "going 360" and talking with teachers on the front line, students who are ready to return to the classroom in-person, parents advocating for the option to choose between virtual learning and in-person learning, and to a member of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards who digs into how school boards are truly wrestling with these big decisions. That's where we'll start.
"Until we have a vaccine, that has been distributed to everyone in the school community, students and staff alike, it will be difficult to return to that prior, normal decision," said Dan Rossmiller, Government Affairs Director for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards.
Rossmiller says there is a lot to consider when re-opening schools for in-person learning.
"The primary challenges that schools have and school boards wrestle with is that until we get everybody vaccinated or reach herd immunity, we're going to have to practice social distancing, we’re going to have to wear masks," Rossmiller said. "We're going to have to clean and sanitize buildings."
He points out that each district has a different approach, which is handled at the local level.
Those different approaches draw both praise and criticism.
Rossmiller said he understands the craving for the return to normalcy. One felt strongly by Kameron Jester, a senior at Indian Trail High School in Kenosha.
"I prefer being in-person," said Jester.
She has been pushing for a return to the classroom since the start of the school year.
She's attended recent school board meetings and says the choice for in-person learning is an important one.
"Especially being a senior, I wanted to have my last year in high school be as normal as I could," said Jester.
For her, while she understands others might rely heavily on virtual learning to meet their needs, she says virtual learning has been a challenge.
"I think just, you know, being in the room with your teachers and your other peers, it's different. It's not the same," she said.
Many teachers see things differently.
"Unfortunately, I don't feel that the decisions that our school board is making right now are prioritizing the health and safety of the staff, students, or families in our district," said Tanya Kitts-Lewinski, President of the Kenosha Education Association (KEA).
She says most teachers want to be back in the classroom but, don't feel safe yet.
Recently, after going virtual through the holidays, the Kenosha Unified School Board (KUSD) voted to allow parents to choose between sending kids back to school in-person or continuing with online learning.
It's a move that the teacher's union has concerns about.
"A lot of our educators are questioning why we wouldn't wait until vaccination is at least available to all of those folks who work and learn in schools," said Kitts-Lewinski.
She also says many teachers want to see more solid plans surrounding contact tracing and testing before returning to the classroom.
The union now worries that a return to the classroom could lead to teachers, and their families, being infected.
"We shouldn't have to choose between the jobs that we love and our livelihoods and risking our health and lives and the health and lives of the people that we live with and love as well," she said.
Bill Yazji is a parent who sees where students and teachers are coming from.
"I think there are situations where both are valid," said Yazji.
He stands with thousands of other parents who believe the choice between virtual and in-person learning is what families ultimately deserve right now.
He created the "KUSD Parents for Choice" group which is now more than 1,500 people strong.
"There are parents, there are teachers, there are people needing virtual. Maybe they have folks are home that are higher risk, maybe students are higher risk," said Yazji. "There's also a lot of need for in-person. You have students who have IDP's, you have students that thrive and need option."
As many suburban and rural school districts vote for an in-person or hybrid return to learning, the state's largest school district, Milwaukee Public Schools, has yet to decide what the next step will be.
The district recently sent out a "Roadmap to Readiness Survey," asking families to provide input on this topic.
The results are set to be discussed by the district's Board of Directors during a meeting before the end of January.