Summer break has yet to arrive for schools across Wisconsin, but more than half a dozen school districts have already made plans to get students back in the classroom before Sept. 1 with hopes of mitigating disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Districts seeking to begin classes before Sept. 1 have to secure an exemption from state law. What’s more, a bill in the Legislature aims to eliminate that roughly 20-year-old law — a proposal that faces pushback from the state’s tourism and lodging industries, which fear doing so would effectively shorten the summer vacation season and cut off those industries already reeling from the pandemic.
Mark Gruen, district administrator for the Royall School District in Elroy, who was a principal on Sept. 11, 2001, and Royall’s superintendent during the passage of the controversial anti-union 2011 Act 10 law, summed up the last 12 months of trying to operate a school amid a pandemic as “extremely challenging.”
“There’s stressful times in the world of education but there’s nothing like this,” Gruen said. “You just always thought, ‘We’re going to be back sooner than they think,’ and we weren’t.”
The district halted in-person classes last spring after Gov. Tony Evers’ order closed schools for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year. While Royall reopened last fall with public health precautions in place, some students have continued taking online courses and many have faced a loss of learning.
“We’ve got some kids who are lagging behind,” Gruen said.
Last month, the Royall School District requested and received from the state Department of Public Instruction a waiver from state law, allowing the district to begin classes as early as Aug. 23. DPI has received and approved 11 such waiver requests so far this year, with seven of those requests citing disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Currently, to start classes before Sept. 1, a school board must hold a public hearing and approve a request for a special exemption. Then DPI must approve the request. Districts seeking a one-year exemption must prove “extraordinary” circumstances, including major construction projects at the school or closures caused by “forces of nature, code violations or environmental orders.”
DPI spokesperson Chris Bucher said in an email it’s difficult to speculate how many requests the department might receive this year, but said it’s probable that additional districts will be seeking a waiver for the 2021-22 school year.
The department approved 18 waiver requests for the entire 2020-21 school year and 14 in 2019-20, with the large majority of those related to major construction projects. This year’s 11 requests so far is more than double the five requests made by April 9 last year, but falls below the 13 requests made by April 9, 2019, ahead of that school year, according to information provided by DPI.
There’s no deadline this summer for a school district to apply for a waiver to the statutory start date.
Randolph School District administrator Ty Breitlow said the School Board requested and received approval to start classes two days early this fall with hopes of preparing students early and to go over COVID-19-related protocols in case there’s a spike in cases, but also to address achievement gaps.
“If we can reduce the gap between when our children are out in the summer and when they return back to school, you have less of that summer slide as well,” he said.
Christina Brey, spokesperson for the Wisconsin Education Association Council, also said it’s difficult to say how much of an increase, if any, the state may see in waiver requests this year, as educators are “laser-focused on continuing to keep student learning on track right up through the end of this school year.”
“They’ve been burning the candle on both ends to advance their students academically and emotionally over this entire school year whether they were teaching in-person, hybrid or virtually,” Brey said. “Plans for summer school sessions are already set, and we can expect those school start discussions to begin in the next month or two.”
Evers, a former educator who served as state superintendent before becoming governor, earlier this year suggested during a WisPolitics.com luncheon that schools could provide more summer classes or begin the school year before Sept. 1 to help address concerns of students falling behind.
“We might have to change that temporarily,” Evers said of the Sept. 1 start date rule. “At the end of the day, we really do need school districts to consider what we can do to catch kids up.”
Wisconsin’s Sept. 1 school start date law was passed by the Legislature more than 20 years ago following a considerable effort in 1999 by Wisconsin tourism groups, who spent more than 780 hours over a six-month period lobbying lawmakers.
This session, state lawmakers have again introduced a bill that would eliminate the law starting with the 2022-23 school term, with the tourism industry staunchly opposed.
Rep. Deb Andraca, a bill co-sponsor, said the pandemic has impacted businesses across the state, including those in tourism, but added that, as a teacher, she’s seen firsthand how students have struggled to catch up from pandemic-related disruptions.
“Our kids have been through so much already, and even within the same district there are students who have fallen much farther behind than others,” said Andraca, D-Whitefish Bay. “For me it’s a matter of local control — we need to give school districts the choice and the flexibility to do what’s best for their students.”
Eric Knight, president of the Tourism Federation of Wisconsin, said Wisconsin’s tourism industry had seen annual growth in revenue up until the state was upended by the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, tourism supported 202,000 jobs and resulted in $1.6 billion in state and local taxes, he said. However, last year there was a 42% drop in travel spending due to the pandemic, according to the U.S. Travel Association.
By moving the school start date earlier, tourism-related businesses would risk missing out on the end of the travel season, which often peaks in August, Knight said.
“In any year the month of August is a significant month for tourism,” Knight said. “A lot of the tourist attractions across the state, they would tell you the same thing.”
Bill Elliott, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Hotel and Lodging Association, said the Sept. 1 start date rule also ensures that younger employers, primarily high school students, have work opportunities over the summer months.
“The dates available to families in our state for travel obviously impact the entire state’s tourism industry, along with the jobs and revenue dependent on our industry, so I think that’s certainly a big piece of the puzzle and that’s why it’s really important for us to protect that Sept. 1 start date,” Elliott said.
The bipartisan bill has been opposed by the American Resort Development Association, National Federation of Independent Business, Wisconsin Hotel and Lodging Association and Wisconsin Restaurant Association.
Brey said WEAC’s members believe local school districts can best decide what makes the most sense for their calendar.
“Our state association is prepared to work with the DPI and our members are ready to engage in local discussions about what’s best for local students,” Brey said. “Lawmakers don’t work face-to-face with students every day and know what they need — but teachers do.”
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A year into a once-in-a-century pandemic, Madison and Wisconsin continue to grapple with a virus that's killed thousands, destroyed businesses, upended school and changed nearly all aspects of everyday life.
It's been 12 months of grief, shutdowns, reopenings, protective measures, partisan fighting, lawsuits and loss. And now, hope.
“Truly every aspect of our lives has been turned on its head,” said Malia Jones, a UW-Madison infectious disease epidemiologist.
"If you would have told me last March that we'd be virtual for a year, I'd never, ever would have believed it."
"We’re used to taking whatever comes through the door," said nurse Maria Hanson, who started journaling about the pandemic soon after treating the patient.
"It’s a risk vs. reward thing and I risk my life to save others," said Brandon Jones, who always worried about bringing the virus home to his wife and two kids.
“Usually a funeral is a major step in understanding that a life was lived and the person is now gone,” he said. “If families don’t get that, it’s just really hard.”
Rev. Marcus Allen knew what bringing everyone together could do for their spiritual and mental health. But each time he considered reopening the church, COVID-19 cases surged.
"I was getting my work done from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. every day," she said.
“Reporting the death counts out day after day was draining,” she said. “It felt like I was announcing a funeral every day.”
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