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Madison Metropolitan School District officials did not provide concrete answers on whether students will return to in-person instruction next week during a School Board meeting Wednesday night.

Superintendent Carlton Jenkins said an announcement will be made Thursday, Jan. 6, after the metrics meeting. School Board member Christina Gomez Schmidt asked Jenkins directly multiple times if students would return in-person on Monday, and he said it was the district’s “intent” since the winter break extension was announced last week, but he did not commit to the return.

“At this point, I haven’t seen anything to stop us from trying to get there on Monday,” Jenkins said. “But I want to be fair to everyone to say we’re going to go all the way through the process.”

MMSD chief academic officer Marvin Pryor said the three-day winter break extension has allowed staff to ensure a return to in-person instruction will be sustainable.

“This has better prepared us for our in-person return,” Pryor said. “It gave all of us an opportunity to refresh, review and reinforce.”

Wednesday’s special board meeting included public comment, with most of the 10 speakers encouraging district administrators and the board to find a way for students to return to buildings on Jan. 10, a couple of people supporting this week’s “pause” and others asking for more transparency.

“I don’t have the information to say, ‘Next week we should be in-person or next week we should be virtual,’” Josh Garoon, a parent of two 8-year-olds, said. “Y’all haven’t shared that information transparently. We have to have more transparency, more clarity from the board and from the MMSD staff.”

Among 64 emails sent to the School Board’s group email address since Jan. 1, 49 suggested resuming in-person instruction, according to a summary prepared for the board. Of 13 written comments submitted for Wednesday’s meeting, most supported at least some return to in-person instruction, while some also suggested an expanded virtual option be made available for students and staff.

The meeting featured presentations from a variety of staff members with updates on testing, local COVID-19 data, academics and staffing. Board members discussed their desire to support students, with some directly asking for a return on Jan. 10, but no vote was on the agenda.

“Everything that we have heard tonight reinforces that getting back to school is our top priority,” board president Ali Muldrow said. “Now it’s really about communicating with our community about what makes us prepared to get back to school on Monday, Jan. 10, and what is the plan that we have that will allow us to return to school safely and allow us to staff our schools safely.”

Case numbers locally and nationally are reaching pandemic records for most age groups, but district medical advisers at the meeting reiterated the safety of schools for students.

“The safest place for kids to be is in school,” Dr. Gregory DeMuri said. “We can be confident that children can be safe in our schools with appropriate mitigation strategies.”

Board member Savion Castro said he supported the administration’s decision to extend winter break this week.

“Given our very high accelerating numbers, to have this pause, to make sure that we could safely reopen on the 10th, I think it was necessary,” he said.

Muldrow said she’d heard from parents that the “pause” this week had caused increased mental health issues for kids as it interrupted a routine, and asked staff about plans for supporting students who felt that additional strain. Other board members stressed the importance of in-person instruction on mental health.

“The biggest mental health strategy we can implement right now is returning our students to in-person learning on Jan. 10,” Gomez Schmidt said.

Staff challenges

In the initial announcement last week, district officials cited “critical staff shortages” among the reasons for the extension. Wednesday, the district’s case count showed that 132 staff have tested positive for COVID over the past two weeks, well above the previous two-week high.

Chief of secondary schools Angie Hicks said 35 of 52 schools had at least six absences a day among staff this week, adding “to an already stretched system.” And next week, the challenges will seemingly continue.

A Madison Metropolitan School District staffing analysis provided to the board Wednesday shows nearly 550 expected staff absences for the week of Jan. 10. That’s more than double the 214 absences reported on the Absence Management system for this week.

Of the 547 already reported for next week, 35.28% — or 193 — were unfilled as of Jan. 4. That’s slightly above the 35.05% unfilled the week of Jan. 3.

On the school year, however, the substitute fill rate is 54.92%, below the 70.84% last school year and even further below the mid-80 and low-90 percentages from 2016-2020.

Having enough staff will be key to the decision announced tomorrow, with Gomez Schmidt suggesting officials should consider the picture school-by-school.

“We can’t keep a whole district shut down if we don’t have adequate staff at 10 schools, because we would have adequate staff at 40 schools,” she said.

Jenkins said there is enough staff to open schools, but that they are being required to skip prep time or other necessary job duties, causing mental and emotional health issues.

“It’s not that we will not have staffing to be able to open, that has not been the case, it’s that we have been stretched,” he said. “Our staff, they were at their wits' end right before break.

“Staff are not getting planning time and they’re experiencing a pandemic, so this decision is not based solely just on staff, we have a lot of factors.”

Board member Cris Carusi said the reasons staff feel stretched are more “nuanced” than COVID alone, including operating in a top-down system and too much of a focus on assessment, among other things.

“We’re hearing all these things from staff and in order to sustain our staff we need to look at that whole picture of what our staff need,” Carusi said. “The fact that we don’t have the staffing in place to reopen is indicative of a much longer-term problem in terms of how we’ve been treating staff in this district, not for weeks, not for months, but for years.”

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