Recommendation Made for Virtual Start to School Year; Board to Vote on August 5

The South Milwaukee School District administration is recommending a virtual start to the 2020-21 school year.

Superintendent Jeff Weiss made the recommendation at Wednesday’s School Board meeting, following months of work from committees reviewing options related to reopening.

You can read the letter sent to parents here and the presentation made to the School Board here.

The board meets on Wednesday, August 5, to vote on options for the restart of school, including the recommended virtual approach, which Superintendent Weiss is suggesting should last at least six weeks.

From the letter …

It is important to note that the virtual model will be different from the emergency remote learning last spring. We will institute:

  • Schedules for synchronous (live) meetings with teachers
  • Schedules for synchronous classes with teachers
  • Social Emotional Learning opportunities for students
  • Rigorous curricular expectations
  • Ability to transition among the three modes of instruction throughout the school year. 

It is also important to share why I recommended this direction. Just a few short weeks ago, my plan was not to go back in a fully virtual setting. In the two week period starting after July 4th, the number of cases of COVID19 in South Milwaukee nearly doubled since the start of the outbreak. The only responsible choice is to recommend that we start in a virtual setting until our community spread numbers are under control. We will be continually reviewing the number of cases in our community. In the event we meet the criteria for declining cases as recommended by local health departments, we will bring our students back into our school buildings in early October.  

We considered the impact of different learning models on our students and the recommendations from the CDC and our local health departments. I understand that the headlines related to the CDC guidance all refer to the preference of getting children back to school, which is true. However, the CDC also provides four different scenarios on what “back to school” may look like, depending on how much the virus is spreading in your own local community. With “no to minimal community spread” of the virus, the recommendation is to go back fully. If there is “substantial, uncontrolled community spread” then districts should work with their local public health officials to determine if going back to school is appropriate and consider all options for continuing education including virtually.

Many suburban Milwaukee County health officials worked together to create a recommendation on when schools should be virtual, hybrid, or fully in person with mitigation strategies. The recommendation relies on our local data to make this determination. I believe that it is important to make decisions based on objective metrics along with considerations on what is best for students as a whole child.  The chart below summarizes the recommendations of the health department officials.

More than anything, I want students back into school buildings on a regular basis. To do this, we need to work together. We have to lower our burden rate, which means we need to stop the spread of the virus.  Please, follow the guidance from our public health officials. Wear face coverings, wash your hands on a regular basis, avoid large gatherings, and physically distance. Encourage others to do so as well. Our ability to safely educate our students in person relies on the actions of the community to stop the spread of this virus. 

I know that the decision regarding how to start the school year could be divisive, regardless of the final choice that will be made next week. It could easily pit friends and colleagues against each other. It could cause families to speak negatively about school board members, teachers, administrators, or me as superintendent. 

My ask of you, just as it was in my last communication, is to respond to these disagreements with kindness. We are stronger as a community, and as a nation, when we work to understand each other and to unite our community. We certainly want to know your opinion and thoughts, we simply ask that you remember the #SMWay when sharing.

I want to reinforce that last paragraph, as a parent, husband and mayor.

Whatever the board decides, I know this: The people involved in making these decisions — from the committee members studying it to the administration to the board members — are well-meaning and care deeply about doing what they think is right to educate our kids. They understand the impacts of their actions — and that there are no perfect options, as they look to balance student and staff safety with a desire (one we all have) to eventually return to normal schooling.

There are no easy choices here, and in that way their decision is like countless others being made by elected officials and other organizational leaders across the country throughout this pandemic. You may disagree with those decisions, and that is OK. Robust debate is a good thing; it makes us better and stronger. You can and should ask tough questions, and make your voices heard as decisions are made. But, no matter the outcome, I ask everyone to respect the people making these choices.

The pandemic has divided us like never before. Let’s not let this or any decision involving the health crisis divide us any further.

And, as Dr. Weiss said, be kind.

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