Wisconsin school children can’t afford to lose another year of learning to COVID-19.
That means local school districts and communities must do everything they can to limit the spread of the more contagious delta strain of the virus so in-person classes aren’t disrupted.
Schools across Wisconsin, including in Madison, are getting off to a great start this fall by offering five days a week of in-person classes. The personal and more engaging instruction that in-person learning provides should allow more young people to catch up in their studies after a year of mostly online classes that slowed progress. Returning to school buildings also will help satisfy young people’s strong need for social interaction with peers.
Wisconsin has long favored local control of schools, and some flexibility makes sense. Communities have varying levels of disease and vaccination. Some schools have more space for social distancing and better circulation of air to limit transmission. If a district suffers a scary outbreak, it might need to go back online—but hopefully not for long.
The delta variant of COVID is more than twice as contagious, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Yet young people are still less susceptible to serious harm. The Wisconsin Department of Health Services, for example, reports that none of the state’s more than 7,600 COVID deaths were children under 10. Just three were younger than 20.
Another sign that in-person school is here to stay are vaccination rates. About 55% of Wisconsin residents and 65% of adults have received at least one dose for protection. The only group that can’t get readily available shots are children under 12. The Food and Drug Administration still hasn’t deemed vaccines safe for youngsters, though the American Academy of Pediatrics is urging the FDA to move faster.
Given this gap in protection, schools can easily justify mandatory shots for teachers and staff, with few exceptions. Most teachers seem fine with that now that the FDA has fully approved the Pfizer shot for adults.
That’s the direction the Madison School District appears to be heading, which is reassuring. Lots of essential workers in other fields face similar vaccine requirements to keep their jobs. They have to get a shot or undergo regular testing.
Another smart safety rule as classes begin is masking for students, staff and visitors inside school buildings. That’s something the CDC has recommended—and that Florida has failed to do, with serious consequences. Cases of the delta strain are soaring in the Sunshine State, where the governor has opposed face coverings in schools. About 230 children are now hospitalized with the virus in Florida.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released a study showing a single teacher in Marin County near San Francisco spread the delta version of the virus to 26 people by removing her mask to read stories to children.
If parents in Wisconsin don’t want their students to wear masks in classes this fall, they can keep their kids home for online learning until the pandemic is over. Hundreds of families in Madison have applied for this option, which is fine. The vast majority of families have not. If the district can’t accommodate all of the families who want to learn online, those families still have online charter schools as an option.
Thankfully, teachers are not being asked to try to teach in-person and online students at the same time. That makes it too hard for educators to hold the interest of students and keep them on track. Madison learned that lesson the hard way last spring.
As school begins with more optimism this fall, parents across Wisconsin have been posting happy pictures of their children on social media. The smiles are contagious, even if some are hidden behind masks.
We’re not back to normal yet. But more shots and reasonable masking will go a long way toward keeping our schools open and ending this pandemic for good.