Madison teachers union looking for answers from MMSD before in-person return

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MADISON, Wis. — Madison’s teachers union is sending an open letter to Madison Metropolitan Schools superintendent Dr. Carlton Jenkins and the district’s school board following the decision to begin the process of returning students to in-person classes.

The letter from the board of Madison Teachers, Inc. thanks Jenkins and other district leaders for considering science and the voices of underserved communities in building the re-entry plan, but also raises several concerns about the plan.

Motivation to Return

Among the union’s biggest questions is whether the return to in-person learning is being motivated by finances.

“Can the district and the BOE (Board of Education) state with certainty that their decision to re-open schools was not influenced by the Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee’s decision to fund school districts holding in-person classes?” the union asked in the letter.

MMSD announced its phased return plan on Wednesday, the same day the Joint Finance Committee voted to prioritize federal aid to schools who have returned to in-person instruction, rather than using a formula favored by the Department of Public Instruction that would divide the money on a per-pupil basis.

The district has not said whether the aid played a factor in their decision-making.

Vaccine Distribution Concerns

Teachers are also showing concern about a return to in-person instruction when educators have not yet been given access to the COVID-19 vaccine, while also recognizing other groups may need to get the vaccines first. However, the union is calling for the district’s help in expediting the process in getting educators vaccinated.

“Educational employees need immediate access to the vaccine, and those working in close contact should be moved to the front of the line,” the union says in the letter of district leadership.

Guidelines from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services currently have educators in the next group of people eligible to be vaccinated, starting March 1st.

The union is also expressing concern about the order in which district employees will be vaccinated. As it stands now, MMSD put elementary employees into “Group 3” for vaccinations, after special education staff, educational assistants and other staff who are essential and supporting children face-to-face. But with kindergarteners expected to return to in-person learning on March 9th, most of the elementary school staff in the district will not have had the chance to get vaccinated yet.

“The district has stated that it will not amend its plan based on its re-opening announcement, so why are we accelerating the re-opening timeline if the vaccination timeline remains stagnant?” the union asked.

Guidelines from Public Health Madison & Dane County say K-2 schools should only open when the 14-day average of new coronavirus cases is 78 or fewer over the span of 4 consecutive weeks — but the county’s data from January 28th to February 4th showed a 14-day average of 126.5 new cases per day — something the union says the district also has not addressed.

Mental Health Concerns

On top of the physical health concerns related to possible exposure of the virus, teachers are also recognizing the mental toll a year-long pandemic and being away from school has had on kids and their families.

“Many members of our community have spoken up about the social/emotional toll the pandemic has had on our children. We could not agree more,” the union said in its letter. “But in the district’s re-entry plan, we have yet to see any substantial plans for giving educators and students the time and space to heal from the collective trauma caused by the pandemic and being away from each other.”

The union says it wants to know if the district will allow time and resources to help that healing process, or if they will be expected to jump straight into getting students prepared for standardized tests.

“We acknowledge that we have a seat at the table to be involved in the decision-making process, but we are not here for ceremonial purposes,” the union said.

MTI’s Board of Directors says if the district does not answer the questions laid out in the letter, it cannot — and will not — encourage its members to support the district’s plan for re-entry.

You can read MTI’s full letter to the district here.

News 3 Now has reached out to MMSD for a response.