By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — Two public-interest law firms are warning Madison’s teachers union that it could face a lawsuit if educators follow through on a plan to fake COVID-19 en masse as a protest against the return of in-person learning.
“Madison Teachers, Inc. leaders are asking their members to falsely call-in sick in order to shut down in-person learning,” Daniel Suhr, senior attorney at the Liberty Justice Center said Friday in a press release. “An organized sick out is a form of strike and illegal in the State of Wisconsin and we are prepared to file a lawsuit to stop this illegal action. Madison students need to be in school, not used as pawns in a publicity stunt.”
Attorneys at the Liberty Justice Center and the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty notified the union on Friday that in the event of an illegal strike, Wisconsin law authorizes students and parents, as well as the school district, to enforce the ban on teacher strikes in court. The law firms say they intend to file a lawsuit in state court on behalf of Madison parents to stop any strike.
As Empower Wisconsin and conservative talk show host Vicki McKenna first reported last week, Madison public school teachers were planning a “sick-out” 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 appeared to have the tacit, if not official, approval of the teachers union.
Empower Wisconsin 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. last Thursday that they had COVID-19 symptoms.
“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 (MMSD) 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.
A source with knowledge of the situation said there was a change of heart Wednesday evening, and organizers instead were looking to change the protest to Monday, the first day teachers are to report to their buildings.
The source, a Madison teacher, said since the email went out and the coverage of it, a lot of teachers in the district have expressed they don’t support the work stoppage plan. Many still do. An emergency meeting of teachers has been scheduled for 4 p.m. today.
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.
On Friday, a source told Empower Wisconsin that many teachers in the district had second thoughts about feigning illness to protest re-opening Madison schools — particularly after Empower Wisconsin and McKenna broke the story.
Sources tell Empower Wisconsin some teachers prefer a “TEACH OUT,” tentatively scheduled for Thursday, March 4. They plan to post signs calling out what they believe to be COVID safety issues on MMSD campuses.
Another source told Empower Wisconsin middle school and high school teachers plan to be outside Madison’s elementary schools as they re-open. They will continue to teach virtually from the sites, in solidarity with elementary teachers.
“There’s somewhat of a disconnect between elementary teachers (who want to go back to in-person learning) and middle and high school teachers (who don’t). There’s certainly a lot of disagreement about what work action people should take,” a source with knowledge of the situation told Empower Wisconsin on Sunday. “I solely blame MTI for not being organized, for not organizing job actions that would be beneficial.”
In an another email obtained by Empower Wisconsin last week, 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.”
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.
“Teachers unions must be held accountable if they take illegal action to keep students out of school,” said Rick Esenberg, president and general counsel at Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty. “Madison parents have been fighting to get their children back in school for nearly a year. We will not allow an illegal strike to continue to bar children from the in-person education they deserve.”