RACINE, Wis. — The local teacher's union in Racine, along with Racine's Common Council, has urged Racine Unified School District to hold off returning to in-person classes until staff has the opportunity to get vaccinated.
RUSD has offered three instructional models for students starting March 1. The options include a staggered return to in-person instruction, a remote option where students learn from home while following a live stream, and a virtual learning option in which students enroll in classes taught by teachers trained in a virtual learning environment.
As Wisconsin's COVID-19 numbers trend in the right direction, the Racine Educators United stressed the county continues to see high disease activity, and a return to in-person instruction could hamper the improving trends.
Watch the teachers union's press conference here:
"To be clear, there is no place educators would rather be than in their classrooms right now," said REU President Angelina Cruz. "Our push is that we want to get in as soon as possible, but it has to be safe both for us and for our kids and their families ."
While the district's plan will require face masks, cleaning protocols, and distancing to the greatest extent, Cruz underscored not every classroom has space to ensure six feet of distancing.
"In the absence of all the mitigation measures that should be followed per the CDC, we think it's important that we're afforded the opportunity to get vaccinated if they can't do that," said Cruz.
Last week, Racine's Common Council passed a resolution urging the school board to continue with remote learning for all students until staff gets a chance to be fully vaccinated.
The district said it offered to attend the council meeting to talk about their safety plan, but their request was denied.
Watch the board meeting here:
When we asked for a comment RUSD Superintendent Eric Galien sent a statement saying:
"RUSD has worked diligently, following CDC and local health department guidance, for the last several months preparing for a safe return to in-person instruction. We are confident in our plan and know that our families are thankful to have been able to choose what is best for them. I am disappointed that the Common Council would target Racine Unified alone. We are uncertain why our students would be treated differently than other students across Racine County."
Wisconsin teachers and school staff are slated to be the next priority group for COVID-19 vaccines starting on March 1.
"We just need more time to do this correctly," said Cruz.
An NBC News tracker compared local data to the Centers for Disease Control's reopening guidance for schools across the country. It showed just more than 10 percent of counties met the criteria for full in-person classes. The map indicated Racine County should remain in a hybrid model.
Cruz added they are working with the district on ventilation and other safeguards and to set up walk-throughs at schools.
Racine Unified School District Board meeting on Monday
The Racine Unified School Board also met for a special meeting Monday night to discuss the new CDC guidance for schools. Outside the meeting several dozen teachers gathered to honk their horns.
In the meeting, administrators said each school submitted its individual safety plan to the health department for review.
Some board members expressed concern that's not enough time for teachers to prepare for the March 1 return, noting that teachers will have to teach in-person and remote students at the same time.
"March 1 is a week away, and are our teachers going to be ready?" said RUSD board member Jane Barbian. "How can we provide them those prep days so they can adequately prepare their lessons, their equipment, and their planning for handling two types of instruction which they have never had to do before?"
The REU met before the meeting to make clear they do not want to return before getting vaccinated.
"We are so close, we are so close to a vaccine, a lot of our teachers have one, but not most," one elementary teacher said.
During the meeting, administrators said CDC guidance says districts shouldn't wait for vaccination to allow in-person learning.
"We look at the cost of children being out of school. We need to put kids first," said Kimberley Granger, the RUSD Health Services Director.
Administrators said they are working to figure out in-person learning for 24 middle and high school classes, as well as three elementary classes, that currently don't have the room to social distance.
During the meeting, administrators said 53 percent of students plan to return to in-person learning.