Racine Unified School District administration is weighing a tough decision, and no matter the outcome, people will be angry.
The district is in the process of deciding whether to bring students back into school buildings in the near future, after 10 months away from them due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Students have been learning virtually so far this year, through a mix of synchronous and asynchronous learning.
The contentiousness of this issue was clear from the more than 40 public comments submitted to be read during the public comment portion of Monday’s School Board meeting. The board usually receives only a handful of public comments during each meeting. In-person comments are prohibited for the moment due to the pandemic.
Some teachers and parents argued that it would be foolish to bring staff and students back into buildings when vaccinations are just around the corner. Teachers asserted that the district should wait until staff have all been vaccinated before bringing students back.
Another group of parents argued Racine Unified should be able organize a safe return to buildings, since other schools in the county and region, such as Kenosha Unified, have convened in-person classes this year.
However, several Unified teachers commented on claims made by the Kenosha Unified teachers’ union that two KUSD teachers have caught COVID-19 at school and brought it home to their spouses, who ultimately died from complications of the disease.
Jody Zirkelbach of Racine was one of the commenters who backed a return to school buildings, but only following vaccinations.
“Let’s try to keep our community members alive,” she said.
Mary Kate Harris of Racine said the social isolation and depression students are suffering while they learn virtually mean that the benefits of returning to schools far outweigh the risks of COVID.
“The children of our community are being punished by RUSD and it is unacceptable,” she said. “They deserve better.”
Jennifer Skuhra of Mount Pleasant, a parent of two elementary-school children, asked the district to continue to rely on its current gating criteria.
“Our children are safer at home,” she said. “Teachers are safer at home.”
While there’s a lot of talk of students falling behind, she said, they’re only falling behind if their learning is being measured on a scale that means nothing in the real world, especially during a pandemic.
She argued that during virtual learning students have “gained independence, compassion, patience and respect in a way that they could have never done before.”
While many teachers questioned the district’s plan to update its gating criteria, Emily DeBaker, the district’s communications manager and a member of its reopening team, said that updates to the gating criteria will be based on new information on the virus that has come out in the past month. The original gating information was released in October; guidance on how the virus spreads, and safety measures, have continued to evolve since then.
DeBaker and Janell Decker, executive director of curriculum and instruction and another member of the reopening team, said that if students return to classrooms this year, the district will continue to offer a virtual option for families who aren’t comfortable with face-to-face instruction.
Teachers and special education students who cannot learn from home are set to return to school buildings Jan. 25, and district leaders say they plan to give another update on a possible return to in-person learning by that date.
Superintendent Eric Gallien said that any notice of a return to learning face to face would come two to three weeks prior to when students would be expected to return.