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Madison teachers happy with vaccination plan, don’t understand why in-person start can’t be pushed back

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MADISON (WKOW) -- Many teachers in the Madison Metropolitan School District started their Thursday outside, protesting next week's return to the classroom for some before being fully vaccinated.

A few hours later, the timeline for vaccinations moved up a week.

Starting March 9, Public Health Madison Dane County will begin vaccinating educators in Dane County, including MMSD staff. On March 12, SSM Health will vaccinate 1,200 "priority staff" at MMSD, including childcare staff, food service workers and more.

That news broke during the teachers' demonstrations, and it was welcome news.

"Our push has been that we don't want to have to go back until we're vaccinated," said Amy Garvoille.

Garvoille is an English teacher at Madison East High School. She says vaccines have been a sticking point for teachers in the district for a number of reasons.

As Wisconsin's second largest school district, Garvoille says there are far more students in buildings to worry about -- 1,600 in Madison East alone, which she points out is more students than some other districts that have gone back in person already have in total.

Garvoille says that also means there's a more diverse student body, with far more students coming from communities disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

"Communities of color, communities with multigenerational households," Garvoille explained. "We just have a much different population than other districts have... It's everything put together that's just why we feel it's not safe."

For many staff, Garvoille included, there are concerns about the age of buildings and how well distancing plans will be executed within the schools. Madison East turns 100 next year, and Garvoille says it's notorious for issues with ventilation.

An independent review found MMSD is taking "more than adequate COVID-19 mitigation measures," but Garvoille cautions that's not telling the whole story. She says while the report highlights filtration technology that's up to par, the report also concedes that many of the intake/outtake systems were measured against their peak performance at the time they were manufactured:

"The air change rates throughout the spaces of MMSD facilities meet or exceed the mechanical code and ASHRAE requirements in place at the time of the air handling equipment’s installation based on the design requirements and documentations (construction drawings and specifications). However, completing an exhaustive airflow test and balance verification was outside the scope of this review and report."

McKinstry's "COVID Plan Verification - Madison Public Schools," Page 10

Garvoille says the referenda passed in November will help address some of the ventilation concerns, but construction on that won't start for a while. She says if she has to go back into that environment, then she would at least want to be vaccinated.

Deidre Jarecki, an English teacher at La Follette High School (one of the newer buildings), is concerned about the WiFi connectivity. She said when she was participating in the "Teach Out" demonstration Thursday morning, the connection was spotty -- and she says the district hasn't addressed what they'll do so as to not disadvantage virtual learners.

It's all of those things combined that staff say a March 9 return date for kindergarteners, followed by phased returns for other grades, is rushed.

"If you're asking us to go back in without a vaccine, but not willing to back up the other parts of the science, that's not fair," Jarecki said.

Both Jarecki and Garvoille believe, however, the Thursday morning "Teach Out" did make progress, and they're happy with the vaccination plan.

They're still just puzzled as to why the district couldn't push back in-person learning until after the plan was fully executed.

"I wish that MMSD would say, 'You know what, we know we're going to have this done by spring break, let's halt going back in-person until then,'" Garvoille said. "But this is a step in the right direction at least."

27 News asked MMSD administrators why the in-person return couldn't be pushed back.

"CDC guidelines said that we should vaccinate staff as soon as possible, but it should not be a factor in the decision around reopening," said Jay Affeldt, MMSD's executive director for student and staff services.

Affeldt worked to arrange the vaccinations next week with SSM Health. He said that he's aware that many staff members have already received vaccinations outside of the plan, so if there are any openings, elementary staff would be next in line following the "priority staff."

Affeldt says the advice from medical experts indicates that vaccines are one step in a mitigation strategy. He says that they shouldn't be the single data point determining when students should return in-person.

Furthermore, he echoed a point made by administrators previously, saying that the negative mental health impact on students should the district stay virtual is severe.

"I think it comes down to our belief that we can do this safely and also know that we're balancing this reopening as a way of addressing our students' social and emotional mental health needs," Affeldt said.

The teachers remain unconvinced. Garvoille says she, too, is suffering from virtual learning, but would feel far more comfortable just waiting a few more weeks so that everybody can be vaccinated and have that extra layer of protection.

"We're not having fun teaching from home," she said. "We want to be back with the kids. That's where we belong."

Andrew Merica

Reporter/Producer, 27 News

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