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In spring 2021, teachers set up tables, chairs and laptops outside of La Follette High School to demonstrate their support of the Madison Teachers, Inc. Framework for Phased Re-entry ahead of the district's phased reopening.

Teachers will return to buildings on Monday as the district reopens for in-person instruction, a new Madison Teachers Inc. statement says. But, the union adds, 67% of its members surveyed did not support such a return or only supported it if COVID-19 case rates stabilized or decreased.

“Many of us will still return to the buildings because our love for the children, once again, is being pitted against our collective concerns about making the safest and healthiest choice,” the statement reads.

The statement, sent to members Thursday night following superintendent Carlton Jenkins’ announcement that in-person instruction would return, includes a petition asking for four items from the district, including designated COVID-19 leave and a “renewed focus” on enforcing mitigation strategies like masking.

Madison Metropolitan School District officials delayed students’ return from winter break from the scheduled Monday, Jan. 3, until Thursday, Jan. 6. Thursday and Friday of this week were then virtual learning days, as district officials navigated whether it was safe to return and whether there were enough staff to do so.

“We recognize this week has affected our scholars, families, and staff in many ways,” Jenkins said in Thursday’s press release. “We appreciate our school community's patience and understanding.

“Although we prefer our scholars to be connecting in-person with teachers and staff while learning in our classrooms, this necessary pause strengthened our ability to sustain remaining open safely.”

MMSD was the first district in Wisconsin to announce such a delay but was joined by a few others days later, including Milwaukee Public Schools. All other Dane County schools remained open, though some district officials acknowledged they faced staffing challenges.

Others around the country have similarly cited staff shortages amid the record-setting case numbers from the Omicron variant.

In Chicago, the district is been at odds with its teachers union, as school initially returned but was called off Wednesday through Friday after the union voted to work remotely as a work action against what they considered unsafe conditions.

Madison hospitals announced Thursday they would postpone some non-emergency surgeries amid capacity concerns, something they began raising concerns about last month. The increase in COVID patients is compounded by staff shortages, much like those facing schools.

MMSD’s health experts and others around the country have said that school is the safest place for many children, with mitigation efforts practiced more widely than other spaces in the community. With those record-setting case numbers, however, there are challenges for staffing buildings and children missing school.

The district set its new weekly record for cases in the Jan. 5 case count update, which covered from Dec. 29 to the morning of Jan. 5. That included a skyrocketing number of staff cases over the prior two weeks at 132 — 100 above the previous two-week high of 32.

That led to 214 requests off in the district’s absence management system. Next week that number will grow, with 547 requests as of Jan. 4. Of those, 35.28%, or 193, were unfilled as of Tuesday, according to a report provided to the School Board.

Most board members Wednesday stressed the importance of returning to in-person instruction on Jan. 10 along with a majority of speakers and people who wrote to the board.

Jenkins acknowledged that staff are “stretched” in current conditions. That’s part of MTI’s statement questioning the decision, which the union says “will only make a difficult situation worse through an avoidance and disengagement strategy” without addressing four requests it made to Jenkins and the School Board.

“Not only have we started this school year short-staffed, but we are losing an extraordinary number or staff due to burnout and disrespect from leadership and community stakeholders,” the statement says.

The four requests, which they want addressed by Jan. 12 at the latest, are:

  • Restoration and advancement of COVID-19 related leave and pay
  • Renewed focus enforcing current COVID-19 mitigation strategies for all stakeholders
  • An emphasis on stakeholder mental health and a commitment to educator autonomy
  • Commit to a workgroup of administrators, in-building staff, families and students to plan for contingencies when the next COVID-19 wave or variant impacts our community

The union “always planned and anticipated a return to our school buildings,” the statement says, but wants those points addressed.

“Working with young people, building communities, and supporting each other is the best part of our jobs,” MTI wrote. “But after weeks of discussions, our community’s current plan that relies on all of us crossing our fingers and hoping no more people get sick so that parents can go back to work and young people have a place to go outside of the house, seems to be a dangerously cosmetic solution to a deeper systemic problem.”

The statement says MMSD officials have told staff they cannot separate students who are disobeying policy by not wearing masks from “the majority of students and staff who are masking for the public good.” MTI wrote that it would “strongly urge” the district to create plans with building staff “for interventions that include humane ways of keeping all students and staff safe during a difficult time through strictly enforcing masking protocols.”

“This is a direct violation of the safety policies outlined in MMSD and Dane County protocols by our public health experts — but the district seems more interested in optics than science and safety in this case,” the statement says.

Wednesday, School Board member Cris Carusi, whose term expires in April, said the staff shortage issue is more "nuanced" than COVID alone, and suggested the district consider how to attract and retain staff long-term.

“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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