Milwaukee community organizations including the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (MTEA), Leaders Igniting Transformation (LIT), Black Leaders Organizing Communities (BLOC), Voces de la Frontera, Youth Empowered in the Struggle (YES), Parents for Public Schools (PPS) Milwaukee, Schools and Communities United (SCU), the Working Families Party and Citizen Action of Wisconsin issued the following joint statement outlining criteria for a future reopening of Milwaukee Public Schools for in-person instruction:
Our coalition agrees that Superintendent Posley is right to protect the health and safety of students, staff, their families, and our community by beginning the 2020-2021 school year virtually. This pandemic is a public health disaster and a community response is needed to bring it under control. The MPS School Board should approve this plan and direct the Administration to immediately begin working to improve crisis distance teaching and learning for students and families. Our organizations are prepared to work with the Administration to make the best crisis learning solution for this dangerous and unfortunate situation, and to ensure equitable access for all students. We call on our local and state elected officials to take immediate, bold action to gain control of this disaster and defend our communities which our public schools are part of.
First, our State, County, and City governments must act immediately to control and prevent community spread of the COVID-19 virus that disproportionately affects our Black, Brown, and low-income communities. The public good must be valued over profits.
- Milwaukee must move back Phase 2 of the Moving Milwaukee Forward Plan and reimplement public health measures that were controlling the community spread of COVID-19 and close restaurants and bars, limit gatherings, etc. If the crisis continues to worsen, Milwaukee should implement a shelter at home order.
- Increase free testing (both number of tests and testing locations) and contact tracing measures to meet the challenge of the crisis.
- Public health officials must provide clear, specific, and consistent guidance to Public Schools and other employers so that they can prepare for any eventual physical return. This guidance should be available to employees and in multiple languages.
To begin Phase 1 of MPS’ COVID-19 reopening plan there is a significant amount of work that we must all accomplish. There are immediate health and safety concerns:
- Employees who are in our buildings must be appropriately safeguarded. MPS must provide adequate PPE, soap and sanitizers, and provide clear and specific guidance based on Department of Health guidelines on how to properly work while distancing and using proper hygiene.
- Employees who can, must be allowed to work from home and have flexible work schedules so they can meet the needs of students and families.
- MPS must develop proactive procedures to handle symptomatic individuals and how to handle positive tests. There is too much room for misinterpretation in the current guidance provided to supervisors and employees on what to do in these situations.
- COVID-19 sick leave should be established prior to the potential expiration of the CARES Act so that employees have no fear of self reporting symptoms and staying home and getting tested.
- School plans must be developed jointly by school leadership, union building leaders, an MPS registered nurse, and Administration to allow for staff to access school buildings with minimum contact with others with a clear expectation of what to do if staff become symptomatic or COVID positive.
Just as important as the immediate health and safety concerns are the needs of our students and their right to equitable access to education during this crisis. Our public schools provide every student an education, no matter their strengths, challenges and learning needs. We must do everything possible to give equitable access to each MPS student.
- High quality training and professional development focused on virtual instruction, culturally relevant pedagogy, and restorative practices, along other topics that are not one-size-fits-all must be provided to staff. We have experts in MPS that can provide these resources without using outside contractors.
- Food distribution must be continued and expanded.
- A systematic and thorough technology distribution plan must be in place for every school and internet access must be addressed by the City and County government. Staff must be included in these plans.
- Students rely on their school social networks for support. Milwaukee students suffer great trauma without a global pandemic which only compounds that trauma. Mental health and social emotional support must be prioritized and provided to our students and families during and after the pandemic.
- Special Education students and teachers deserve a K-12 comprehensive district plan that takes into account the specific learning needs, accommodations, modifications and additional supports of nearly 15,000 students.
- English as a Second Language/English Language Learners and Newcomer/Refugee students cannot be an afterthought. Additional resources and staff are needed to ensure they have an equal education.
- Standardized testing must be halted.
- Student schedules and workloads must be carefully balanced with the demands of altered home lives, stress, and work. Many of our students have become caregivers, childcare providers, and/or family wage earners during the pandemic. We must accommodate these demands.
In addition to the needs listed above, we must see the below criteria met before we consider a return of students and a full complement of staff to our buildings.
- MPS must complete the WI Department of Health risk assessment tool for each school successfully and secure agreement from union building leaders and an MPS registered nurse. These documents should be posted publicly with time for families, students, and staff to view and comment.
- Community spread of the virus must be stopped. MPS’ eventual safe reopening is dependent on a societal response.
- Expand free testing by the State, County and City which is accessible to all Milwaukee communities especially low-income and Black and Brown communities that have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
- The City of Milwaukee Health Department must expand contact tracing so that it is sufficient to trace and isolate individuals who are exposed to COVID.
- We must see 21 consecutive days of a downward trajectory of documented cases, hospitalizations, and positivity rates (near zero incidence) in Milwaukee County.
- There must be consistent monitoring of the reproductive rate of COVID-19 to ensure that the rate does not rise above 1 (anything more than 1 demonstrates community spread). Currently, the estimated rate is 1.37 in Milwaukee County.
- Exact gating criteria with objective metrics and timelines should be established to ensure that students, staff, and families have clear expectations.
- Each school and building must have a return plan that is agreed on with school leadership, union building leaders, an MPS registered nurse, and Administration.
- MPS must establish a specific plan for symptom checks and testing MPS staff, students, and families.
- There must be a dramatic funding increase from the State and Federal governments.
This is not an exhaustive list of the work that must be done to safeguard our school communities or to provide effective crisis teaching and learning but we believe it provides a baseline of demands for our students and staff. This coalition of groups cares deeply about our public schools and worked tirelessly to pass the referendum. We are disappointed that children will not get to return to schools with the additional resources that Milwaukee voters approved right away. But we cannot ignore science and we value human life too much to rush a return that could result in the even wider spread of COVID-19 and more illness, hospitalizations, and deaths.