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GOP lawmakers urge districts to open schools

Empower Wisconsin | Aug. 7, 2020

By M.D. Kittle

MADISON — Nearly four-dozen Republican members of the Assembly signed on to a letter calling on education administrators to keep their schools open and “provide every student with an in-class experience.”

The letter, signed by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester), Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) and 45 other state representatives, points out the inadequacy of the kind of distance learning Wisconsin schools delivered amid the final months of the 2019-2020 school year.

Despite his public statements to the contrary, there is growing concern that Gov. Tony Evers will again lockdown schools to start the new school year in a few weeks, using COVID-19 data to justify his decision.

School districts such as Madison’s already have opted to begin the year with a “virtual learning” model. Wisconsin’s teachers unions, among Evers’ biggest campaign funders, are demanding the administration close schools while the pandemic persists.

“We understand that as part of your local decision-making process, some of you are considering virtual education as part of your strategy,” the lawmakers’ letter states. “There is nearly universal agreement among educators that most students are taught more effectively in a classroom. In a virtual setting, it is often impossible to provide adequate oversight of student engagement and to give additional assistance to those who are struggling.”

The 47 representatives assert that the majority of parents contacting their offices have voiced a “strong desire” for their children to return to the classroom on a daily basis.

“The state is minimally obligated to provide students the opportunity for a sound, basic education, but we wish to ensure all students have access to the best education possible,” the letter states.

For districts that do decide to go all-virtual, the legislators urge that teachers be physically present in the classrooms. Doing so via a virtual platform would provide an educational experience that more closely mirrors the classroom. Too many students were left behind in the final semester’ disjointed virtual experience, education stakeholders have complained.

“Last spring, there were numerous reports of families that did not engage in virtual learning provided by their district, which is cause for great concern,” the letter states. “Taking steps such as scheduled live courses would allow teachers to take attendance while giving parents the opportunity to provide a successful learning environment.”

A report in June found basic online instruction put students three to sis months behind.

Beyond the educational outcomes and widening achievement gaps is the fact that many parents have been forced to find day care for their children, at rapidly rising costs. Those who work from home must share access to computers and the internet, the lawmakers note.

The letter also encourages school districts to keep athletic facilities open to students and family.

And the Republican representatives note that they are “staunch advocates” of open enrollment.

“We have asked the Department of Public Instruction to promulgate a rule allowing broader access to the open enrollment process when the student’s best interest is at stake. As an educator, you understand each student learns in a unique way and we ask you to consider a parents’ request to place their child in the best environment for their needs,” the letter states.

Of course, the lawmakers could ensure that schools open for the fall semester by going back into session and passing a joint resolution that stops Evers’ broad and constitutionally questionable emergency order.

“The best option for keeping schools open for in-person classes is for the legislature to end the state emergency immediately, which also ends the face mask mandate and prevents the Governor from issuing orders relating to schools under his powers,” state Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater) wrote in an email conservative talk show host Vicki McKenna.

“The action of the legislature ending the Governor’s state emergency would also provide great weight in a legal challenge to the State Supreme Court if State DHS or local public health agencies retaliated by using their Chapter 252 powers to prohibit in-person classes without a great deal of evidence for the necessity of that action.”

Chapter 252 is the statute that gives state and local health officials broad powers to deal with communicable diseases.

Senate Republican leadership has said they would welcome convening the Legislature to vote out Evers’ order. Some of the Assembly members who signed the letter have called for going back in to session. 

Read the Assembly letter here. 

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