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‘We don’t have the authority,’ state officials won’t order schools to start virtually

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MADISON (WKOW) -- A group of teachers unions in Wisconsin wants state leaders to require schools to start virtually in fall.

The unions, including one in Madison, sent a letter to Gov. Tony Evers, State Superintendent Carolyn Stanford Taylor, lawmakers and DHS Secretary Andrea Palm, urging them to take action to keep kids safe this school year.

The letter cites record case numbers and the increased risk of contracting COVID-19 among minority students as reasons.

"Our students need safe, equitable, well-resourced classrooms staffed with highly qualified educators, so they can learn. The classroom is where every single educator wants to be this fall, but with no containment of Wisconsin COVID-19 cases, a virtual reopening for public schools is necessary," the letter states.

But the Department of Public Instruction says it can't order districts to do that.

"We don't have the authority at the Department of Public Instruction to close schools. We just aren't given that authority, nor do we have the authority to mandate an instructional design," said deputy state superintendent Michael Thompson.

Last week, the governor said he can't either.

"I'm not in any position to say we're going to, or we're not going to," Gov. Evers said at a news conference on July 14. "I'm not going to order them closed. That gets at an issue of what orders I can do or not do. But I'm still optimistic that they can open and there's lots of options."

DPI is offering extensive recommendations for districts to follow as they develop plans.

"Whether they're bringing kids in or going virtual, it's not gonna look like it did last February. There are going to be those safety precautions in place," Thompson told 27 News.

DPI suggests districts weigh three main options: all in-person classes, all virtual learning, or a hybrid approach.

They should make plans based on four factors: social distancing, isolating those with symptoms, teaching good hygiene practices and making sure buildings are clean and disinfected.

"These will have cost to school districts," Thompson said. "They'll try to absorb the cost because they're not going to, it's not going to be at the expense of the safety of kids. But there are costs around the personal protection equipment that's necessary, creating safety and spacing in their buildings, there might be staff cost to bring in more staff."

Federal CARES Act funding has helped some schools pay for these changes, but Thompson hopes more will come. He says the state could consider more school funding, but it's also facing financial difficulties right now.

Meanwhile, districts will need to make sure every child has access to what they need to learn safely.

"How can we get laptops to every kid, how can we create hotspots where the internet isn't provided," he said. "I think [the pandemic] showcased that access to the internet should be a utility. It should not be just accessible for some, because it now it is part of what you need to really thrive in our society; and I think there are efforts to work on reducing that issue."

Thompson says districts are still working on developing those plans right now, along with making sure students who need to connect with teachers have the resources they need.

The state Department of Health Services said it will continue to work with DPI and local health departments on guidance for districts.

"We have been and will continue to monitor and analyze data to help school boards and administrators make decisions in consultation with local public health departments," a DHS spokesperson said in a statement.

Jennifer Kliese

Weekend Anchor and Reporter, 27 News

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