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Madison Metropolitan School District officials have expressed optimism that students will return to buildings Jan. 10.

The Madison School Board will hold a meeting Wednesday to discuss a return to in-person instruction and hear from the public.

The board also met last Friday to discuss the district administration’s decision to extend winter break through Wednesday and have students return to virtual learning for at least Thursday and Friday. That meeting did not feature an opportunity for public comment, to the dissatisfaction of many in the “chat” on the YouTube stream of the meeting.

Many have expressed frustration with the timing of the decision, which was announced the Thursday before a holiday weekend at 5:30 p.m.

Wednesday’s meeting, which begins at 5 p.m., includes a public comment portion, a chance to summarize written public comments and an “update on safe return to school buildings for in-person learning.” The last item will be a discussion, but will not include a vote of any kind.

Those interested in speaking during the meeting must fill out a registration form on the district’s website, which opens two hours prior to the meeting. Written comments can be submitted at any time.

The meeting will be livestreamed on the board's YouTube channel.

At Friday’s meeting, which shortly followed a press conference from district administrators and health experts explaining the decision, board members expressed a mix of understanding and urgency to get students back inside buildings.

Multiple board members encouraged administrators to offer a more solid commitment to the hopeful Jan. 10 return.

“We need to be committed to reopening on Monday unless something happens where we can’t because like half our staff are out,” Cris Carusi said. “Every day that we keep kids in virtual learning is a day when mental health issues are going to become worse for our students, is a day when students are more likely to disengage from school and I think is a day that is going to lead to several more days of challenges when kids get back into buildings.”

Superintendent Carlton Jenkins refused during the press conference to offer a specific metric that would govern a return to buildings, saying case counts, staffing and the ability to practice mitigation like testing and improved masking would all be factored in.

“It’s not just the case counts, unless it goes catastrophic,” Jenkins said. “We’re very optimistic about Jan. 10, (but I) can’t give you any more definite on that because we don’t control the virus.”

Districts around the country have similarly delayed the return to school buildings amid the Omicron variant, which is causing record case numbers nationally and locally. In Wisconsin, at least a few other districts also delayed a return to buildings for reasons related to COVID-19 or staffing shortages, including Milwaukee Public Schools, the only district larger than MMSD.

The district's health experts stressed during Friday's press conference that school is likely the safest place for students to be, saying the data shows less spread in schools where mitigation efforts are in place compared to households or other community locations. They also acknowledged staff shortages can be a limiting factor.

Jenkins said the "pause" of this week is to allow for a consistent and ongoing return to in-person instruction for the remainder of the school year.

“We’re pausing so that we can get back in school and stay in school,” Jenkins said. “Based on the number of individuals who are self-reporting at this point and other information we’ve gathered from our screener, we think that taking this time to pause will allow us to be able to get additional testing during this week for some of our students, some of our staff showing various symptoms.”

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