Two Madison teachers, two very different perspectives on returning to in-person learning

MADISON, Wis. — After the Madison Metropolitan School District announced it would return for in-person learning through a phased approach starting March 9, Madison teachers were quick to voice their support and concerns online.

News 3 Now’s Jamie Perez spoke to two Madison teachers with two very different perspectives on the issue.

The teacher who spoke in favor of returning for in-person learning asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation. For purposes of this story, we will call her Emma.

Emma has worked with students in person throughout the pandemic when most Madison teachers switched to teaching online. She works with special needs students daily and said she has never felt unsafe with the safety measures MMSD has implemented.

After hearing MMSD’s announcement about a phased return to in-person learning, Emma said she was happy to hear it.

“I have not had a problem with feeling safe,” Emma said. “And if I have a concern, I can go to our school nurse and administration and it’s always been addressed. Students of course are required to wear masks, instructors and adults working with these kids are required to wear masks as well as face shields.”

Emma said she knows of other teachers who are also in favor of MMSD’s decision mostly because, “There is no amount of virtual instruction, no matter how well it’s done online that we can replace the traditional school experience.”

Many teachers, however, do not feel the traditional school experience outweighs the need for teachers to be vaccinated before returning to school and the overall safety of students, student’s families and staff.

Shawn Matson, a teacher at La Follette High School, said he does not think MMSD’s decision to return to in-person learning is a good one.

“We’ve planned now for virtual instruction. We’ve got through collectively thousands of hours of professional development, setting up our virtual classrooms, reengineering our entire curriculum, all the way down to redoing worksheets,” Matson said. “Now, we have to re-plan all of that and one big question is, when is that planning going to happen?”

Matson said his biggest concern was the health and safety of everyone who will be on the frontlines of an in-person return and the possibility of students bringing the virus home to their families.

“We live in a community where one of our students has already died because of the virus, and that is when schools were closed,” Matson said.

“This really is a no-win situation for everyone. There’s no clear cut right or wrong answers. We are just all trying to do our best,” Emma said.

Matson and Emma had different responses when asked if they knew that this decision was coming. Matson said there was no communication and he had no idea this would be in the cards for third quarter. Emma, on the other hand, said, “MMSD has given staff members plenty of advance notice that this very well could be coming. They had ample time to make plans in terms of what they could do for emergency child care, to get their doctors notes going, to see medical professionals, all of that. This was not all of a sudden some big surprise.”

Emma said she believes MMSD has the capability to make an in-person return safe for everyone.

“If families don’t feel comfortable sending their child back right now, they should have the option to keep them home. But if families feel that they are safe and that it’s worth it for their child to be able to be around other kids, to be in school, to be on a regular schedule again, we should give them that opportunity in the safest way possible and I totally think we can do it.”

Matson, on the other hand, said he works with many Black and brown students and there is an issue of equity that needs to be considered when students come back to school. Matson said many of his Black and brown students have family members who work in low-wage, essential worker roles and have higher risks of contracting the virus.

“I have kids every week saying, ‘Hey Mr. Matson, I’m not going to be in class this week because I tested positive and am feeling sick or my mom is sick or we have to go help my grandma’,” Matson said.

Matson also refuted Emma’s idea that returning to in-person instruction would alleviate the social aspect that students are missing out on.

“When we go back, school is not going to be hanging out with your friends, having lunch together, hugging your buddy that you missed, sitting together, making a Tik Tok. That’s not going to be happening,” Matson said. “Kids are going to be in a regimented, sterilized, impersonal environment.”

Matson said he knows of several teachers who are refusing to return, despite MMSD saying it expects all staff to return.

“I know that it’s something people are concerned about, but I just think it’s a question of priority,” Matson said.

“Kids have already stepped up to the plate in terms of demonstrating flexibility in how they learn. I believe kids will continue to do so when they come back to school. I’m not worried about them in that regard,” Emma said. “In terms of new variants of the virus, I think we are still wading through uncharted territory right now. There will always be ‘what if’ scenarios.”