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Lawmakers: Reopen schools or pay the price

Empower Wisconsin | Feb. 3, 2021

By M.D. Kittle

MADISON — Two southeast Wisconsin lawmakers are urging Milwaukee area school districts to actually follow the science and return to in-person education.

And the legislators warn there will be a cost for school districts that stubbornly keep classroom doors locked in the disintegrating name of COVID-19.

State Sen. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) and Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-New Berlin) in letters sent to administrators Tuesday said they will be “working on adjusting school funding to direct more state dollars to schools that have returned to in-person education.”

Kooyenga sent letters to Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) West Allis/West Milwaukee School District and the Wauwatosa School District.

Sanfelippo joined Kooyenga on the letter to WAWM, which, like Wauwatosa, offers a hybrid learning model.

“As you know, the evidence is growing that our children are suffering a major setback due to virtual education. This is especially true of students who were economically disadvantaged before the COVID era, who are now suffering an even greater blow to their education,” the lawmakers wrote in their letter to Superintendent Marty Lexmond and school board members.

An article published last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) finds K-12 schools that restarted in-person education last fall show scant evidence that schools contributed meaningfully to the spread of COVID-19.

The CDC overview includes a study of 17 K-12 schools in rural Wisconsin, where COVID-19 incidence was lower in the schools than in the broader community. Those schools had a high mask adherence rate, the study found.

“During 13 weeks in the fall of 2020, there were 191 COVID-19 cases in staff and students, with only 7 of these cases determined to result from in-school transmission,” the review notes.

The lawmakers referred to several reports and editorials making the case for re-opening schools to full in-person learning.

“I fear that the collateral damage done to our children, especially poor and minority children, will be felt for years to come in districts like Milwaukee Public Schools,” Kooyenga wrote in his letter to MPS Superintendent Keith Posley and the school board. “The case in favor of returning to in-person education as soon as possible is strong, nonpartisan, and growing with each new piece of evidence.”

The Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association doesn’t want anything to do with in-person schools, no matter what the science says. MTEA and unions like it have rallied around their virtual school messages and hashtags — #DemandSafeSchools and #VirtualUntilItsSafe.

“The only safe learning in a city where the spread of the virus is uncontrolled is virtual learning,” MTEA proclaimed this week on its Facebook page. 

But a lot of educators and administrators don’t agree with constantly keeping schools closed to in-person learning.

Kooyenga and Sanfelippo wrote to superintendents and school boards in New Berlin and Elmbrook expressing their “sincere gratitude” for the districts’ decisions to open their schools to traditional education. The school systems are examples of “what forward-thinking school districts can accomplish in the era of COVID,” the lawmakers wrote.

They added that 40 percent of U.S. students, as of December, were still stuck in failed virtual education models. They further note some troubling disparities.

“Schools that are all virtual, like MPS and several others, are receiving far more federal funding despite the reality that it costs significantly more to open schools during a pandemic,” Kooyenga and Sanfelippo wrote.

A growing number of Wisconsin residents have grown tired of the failed virtual learning model.

A recent statewide education poll, commissioned by School Choice Wisconsin, found 62 percent of respondents said they want schools to be open with some form of in-person education.

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