By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — Madison public school teachers are planning a “sick-in” to protest against Madison Metropolitan School District’s plan to resume in-person learning after nearly a year of failed virtual education.
The work action appears to have the tacit, if not official, approval of the teachers union.
Empower Wisconsin has obtained an email from Madison Teachers Inc. (MTI) faculty representatives encouraging all MMSD teachers to feign illness and ditch their teaching responsibilities.
The email urged staff to report to the district before 8 a.m. this morning that they had COVID-19 symptoms. A source with knowledge of the situation said there was a change of heart Wednesday, and now it looks like the work stoppage could happen on Monday, the first day teachers are to report to their buildings.
“I’m sure we all feel exhausted, or have consistent headaches, not really feeling our usual energetic selves. Are you picking up what I’m putting down here?” the email states.
“We need them to get thousands of responses on the google forms. Flood them. We are encouraging you and your staff to join us all in solidarity to show the district that we do not believe it is safe yet,” the union reps’ message implores.
MTI, like many other teachers unions across the state and country, has vehemently opposed any attempt to bring educators back to the classroom while the pandemic persists. The resistance movement continues despite the nation’s health experts urging schools to re-open, noting a raft of studies showing the relative safety of in-person learning.
Madison teachers are protesting what may be one of the slowest phase-ins of in-person education out there. Kindergarten students are the first to return to the classroom — on March 9 — in accordance with the MMSD plan to re-open schools. Students in first and second grades won’t be back in class until a week later. And 4-K students start back on March 23. There is no guidance on when the remaining grades will report back to the classroom.
A Madison teacher with knowledge of the situation said many Madison educators want to return to in-person learning. But the teachers driving the “sick-in” are clearly trying to send the district a message.
“It is a work action on behalf of the faculty representatives and members of MTI that agree with them to send a message that they don’t think it’s safe to go back,” said the teacher, who originally reached out to conservative talk show host Vicki McKenna.
The email message includes an example of the district’s online health screener, which asks staff a series of health questions to determine if they are well enough to teach. Of course, the vast majority of Madison teachers are working from their homes.
“Is your temperature greater than 100.4 degrees? …”Have you developed any of the following symptoms in the last 24 hours?” Symptoms include cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, new loss of test or smell, nausea/vomiting — the standard COVID-10 check list.
“If you answered YES to any of the above questions, do not work in-person today. Instead, complete this confidential Google Form so that we can reach out to you with next steps,” the health screener advises. “Please notify your supervisor that you will not be working in-person. In addition to the symptom check found above, you can find the District’s decision guide on when to come to work here.”
It’s not clear how many teachers plan to report “symptoms,” how many are “picking up” what union faculty reps are “putting down.” But the sick-in could cause a substantial disruption to education and MMSD families.
In an another email to teachers obtained by Empower Wisconsin, MTI union chief Edward A. Sadlowski notes he is aware of the communication. Sadlowski advises MMSD employees to “be honest when answering any health screener.” Then he quickly adds:
“We understand that some may feel pressured to answer ‘No’ to all the questions presented on the District’s health screener when one should answer ‘Yes’. You do not have to, and should not, work when demonstrating COVID-19 symptoms.”
The union leader asserts teachers are experiencing the “psychological fragility and resultant health symptoms brought on by the prolonged health crisis.”
The teacher who spoke to Empower Wisconsin said while MTI may not officially support the work stoppage, it isn’t doing anything to stop the work stoppage.
“They could have had a better action plan for students,” he said. “We have nurses in our schools who have to categorize and take COVID forms in. The last thing we want to do is face getting these systems miscategorized and confused.”
A spokesman for the school district did not return Empower Wisconsin’s request for comment.
The plan to feign illness and protest the re-opening policy is reminiscent of the sick-ins a decade ago this month.
After then-Gov. Scott Walker unveiled what became known as Act 10, reforms to the state’s public sector collective bargaining laws, teachers called in sick and forced district across the state to shut down. Many of the teachers turned out for mass protests at the state Capitol. In some cases, sympathetic doctors were showing up and handing out phony sick notes to truant educators. It’s against the law for teachers to go on strike in Wisconsin.