Reopening Wisconsin Schools: Time For A Reality Check

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July 17: Update: In the one week since this post appeared, COVID-19 in Wisconsin not surprisingly has gotten worse. According to Wisconsin Department of Health Services data, the seven day average for positive tests in Wisconsin is now 822, the highest since the virus started spreading in the state. Disturbingly, the positivity rate has been below 5 percent only once since July 4th, meaning that the increased cases cannot be explained just by the fact of increased testing. Additionally:

  • We are now over 300 hospitalizations, the first time it’s been over that number since June 11.
  • Stephanie Smiley, interim state health officer and administrator for the state Division of Public Health, says that  “All seven of our Wisconsin regions that we monitor are considered to have high disease activity levels.”
  • Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer for the DHS Bureau of Communicable Diseases, told the press that “the news is mostly bad … the trend is going in the wrong direction.”
  • Dr. Westerggard also said that the number of people in the 20-30 year old age group infected was the “tip of the iceberg.”
  • The two largest school districts in the state, Milwaukee and Madison, have announced that they will start the school year online.
  • In a survey conducted at the end of June, 54 percent of UW Oshkosh faculty and staff feel safe returning to campus in the current climate. It is not known if that number would go down based on the July spike in cases.
  • According to the same survey, only 41 percent of student respondents rated the resumption of campus life as extremely or very important.

Today (July 10, 2020) Wisconsin saw its highest increase in positive Covid-19 cases since the pandemic began. According to Wisconsin Department of Health Services data, 845 tests out of 11,857 conducted came back positive (6.7 percent). While not yet in Texas, Arizona, or Florida territory, Wisconsin is clearly going in the wrong direction.

The President and his enablers insisted that states could reopen their economies safely even before the reopening criteria endorsed by the White House Task Force were met, and that the summer heat by itself would quell the virus. Predictably, all that bluster turned out to be BS, and so there’s now a real possibility that some states may have to reimpose stay-at-home orders.

School system leaders in Wisconsin, at all levels of education, are actively working on plans to reopen schools in the fall. Because the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down Governor Evers’ “Badger Bounce Back” plan (a plan that went no further than endorsing CDC recommendations for reopening), neither the Governor nor the Director of Health Services can demand that benchmarks in controlling the virus be met before schools can open.

Suppose the Badger Bounce Back plan was still in place? The Plan included six gating criteria that must be met before the state could safely reopen. As of today, the state has not met four of the six criteria.

As of July 10, 2020 Wisconsin has not met four of the six gating criteria that the Badger Bounce Back plan considered necessary to reopen the state safely. With positive Covid-19 growing at a record pace, it is not likely that all the red will turn to green by the time schools are scheduled to reopen in the fall.

As regards school reopening, the Badger Bounce Back Plan required that all the gating criteria be met before K-12 schools could open, with the caveat that “People over age 60, including employees and those who are medically vulnerable, should continue to shelter in place. Online education/remote work encouraged wherever possible.” As for post-secondary institutions, the Plan recommended that they only CONSIDER reopening after all the gating criteria were met. While the Plan did not go this far, I think it’s safe to say that responsible medical professionals would consider it extremely risky to reopen the campuses if the state is continuing to see an uptick in positive cases.

Wisconsin is not even close to being in the “Phase One” stage of reopening envisioned by the Badger Bounce Back Plan, yet school leaders insist we can open safely in the Fall.

We all completely understand the reasons for wanting to reopen schools as soon as possible. Evidence suggests that online education does not serve all K-12 students well, and let’s face it: huge numbers of parents need to have someplace to bring their children in order to work their full-time jobs. The day care function of our schools is real and should not be minimized.

The rush to open the universities is somewhat more difficult to comprehend. Psychology Professor Laurence Steinberg, who has conducted experiments on college students and risk taking, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times that should influence decisions in this area. (“Expecting Students to Play it Safe if Colleges Reopen is a Fantasy“). Though my 30+ years of teaching on college campuses tells me he is right, I pray that Steinberg is wrong about this:

My pessimistic prediction is that the college and university reopening strategies under consideration will work for a few weeks before their effectiveness fizzles out. By then, many students will have become cavalier about wearing masks and sanitizing their hands. They will ignore social distancing guidelines when they want to hug old friends they run into on the way to class. They will venture out of their “families” and begin partying in their hallways with classmates from other clusters, and soon after, with those who live on other floors, in other dorms, or off campus. They will get drunk and hang out and hook up with people they don’t know well. And infections on campus — not only among students, but among the adults who come into contact with them — will begin to increase.

At that point, college administrators will find themselves in a very dicey situation, with few good options.

All of the people and teams working hard to open our schools safely in the fall deserve our support and thanks. I’m not arguing that we should put the brakes on creating plans to reopen. Still, Wisconsin does need a reality check. With Covid-19 infections on the rise, with the Supreme Court making it difficult to impossible for the Governor and Director of Health Services to act, and with the Republican legislature not even willing to support a mask requirement for the state, parents have every reason to be concerned about sending their children back to school in the Fall. Even though the Supreme Court shot down the Badger Bounce Back, that only prevented state leaders from enforcing it. In no way does the Court decision prevent education leaders from stating that they will not reopen until, at a minimum, all of the gating criteria of the plan are met. Is it responsible to do any less?

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About Author

Tony Palmeri

Tony Palmeri is a Professor of Communication Studies at UW Oshkosh. He teaches courses in rhetoric and public advocacy, freedom of speech, the rhetoric of rock and roll, and the communication career capstone. He maintains a blog called "Tony Palmeri's Media Rants." Tony served two terms on the Oshkosh Common Council and ran for state legislature in 1996 and 2004. You can find more information about him at www.tonypalmeri.com

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