RACINE — Parents urged the Racine Unified School Board during its latest meeting to return students to in-person learning.
Monday was the first time the School Board allowed public comment during one of its business meetings in around six months. Board President Brian O’Connell previously said this was due to logistical issues as the board had been hosting meetings via Zoom since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. There were a few technical issues during the comment period on Monday that caused some minor delays.
Out of the 11 people who commented during the meeting, either in-person or via email, nine of those implored the board to get students back into classrooms.
Nick Schliepp said his son just started in 4-year-old kindergarten at Gifford K-8 this year. Schliepp said his son was excited to go to school and meet new friends. Now he sits in front of a tablet and watches a pre-recorded video for 15 minutes every day, then does lessons, assisted by his mother.
“On the first day of school he was extremely sad in a way I’ve never seen before,” Schliepp said as he became visibly emotional.
Schliepp said that now any time they pass Gifford his son begs to go to his “big school” and play with his friends.
Schliepp asked if he could invoice the district for all the time his wife spends helping their son with his lessons, while she also works from home.
“At the end of the day, my child needs to be in school and needs to be with his friends,” Schliepp said.
Kimberly VanDyke, who has two children in RUSD elementary schools, said in her emailed comment that she’s seen plenty of other children go back to day care, private schools and sports without causing COVID-19 outbreaks. She asked the district to return Unified students to school as well.
“My heart is breaking for not only my children but for all kids in the RUSD district,” VanDyke said.
She said her children miss the structure that in-person school provides, as well as their teachers and playing with their friends.
She referenced the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s assertion that keeping schools closed can negatively impact the social-emotional wellbeing of children in addition to their academic success.
VanDyke wrote that the downsides of virtual learning disproportionately impact low-income and minority children and those with disabilities. She added that those groups are more likely than their peers to rely on school-supported resources like food programs, special education services, counseling and after-school programs.
“I’m asking you to please put our children and their education first,” VanDyke said. “Please give us a choice to send our kids back to school.”
Joseph Kobriger, who described himself as a grandfather and father, said he was sure that keeping schools closed was not about student safety.
Kobringer said that children do not learn life skills in front of a computer and that coronavirus is not killing students and teachers.
“I don’t see this (keeping school buildings closed) protecting students,” he said. “It’s hurting students.”
Ally Docksey asserted that most teachers do not face an elevated risk of complications due to COVID-19 and said that the recent spike in cases across the state is due to students returning to college.
“Those of us who want our kids in school know there’s an increased risk,” Docksey said. “Those of us who want our children in school are willing to take that risk.”
Those who spoke out in favor of returning to students to in-person learning were met with applause from other members of the public who attended the meeting.
In contrast with the majority of speakers, Jenna Contreras said via email that due to the rising level of cases in Wisconsin and among Unified staff members, it is not safe to have students return to the classroom this fall.
“It is absolutely not smart, safe or in the best interest of staff or students to have children return to the buildings in any way at this time,” she wrote. “Teachers are not martyrs and should not be expected to act as such.”
Angelina Cruz, president of the Unified teachers’ union Racine Educators United, emailed a statement in agreement with Contreras.
Cruz wrote that she was “gravely concerned” about the district considering opening school buildings to students during the second quarter.
She cited several reasons, including the increase in the percentage of positive tests locally and across the state as well as cases within Racine Unified schools even with only staff and a small number of special education students back in the buildings.
“Though these are difficult and unprecedented times, it is imperative the safety of staff and students is at the forefront of all decisions made,” Cruz said.
Racine Unified Superintendent Eric Gallien announced during Monday’s meeting that the district was set to put out surveys to staff and Unified families on Tuesday to get feedback from the community about remote learning and how it’s going. Gallien said the district aims to use that feedback to make informed decisions about how to move forward, either with continued virtual learning, or bringing students back to school in some format.