Bill would impact when schools close in pandemic

Local administrators concerned about impact of Wimberger proposal
Eric Wimberger
By: 
Lee Pulaski
City Editor

Schools being closed to in-person instruction have been a fact of life for communities over much of the last 10 months, but a state Senate bill could make it harder for local districts to do so if there are health issues.

Sen. Eric Wimberger, R-Green Bay, introduced Senate Bill 6 on Jan. 19 in response to parents across the state who are not happy with the virtual learning formats their schools provide and to families who cannot work from home and therefore monitor their children during the day.

Under the bill, school districts would have to get supermajority votes, at least two-thirds, from their boards every two weeks to close school buildings to in-person instruction, and they would have to provide full-time instruction no more than 15 days after the state completed Phase 1B of the COVID-19 vaccinations, which would include teachers.

Wimberger said in a press release that it is imperative for all schools to reopen as soon as possible to keep students on track with their learning.

“We hear stories every day from parents who can see their kids falling behind in real time,” Wimberger said. “They are missing out on incredibly valuable instruction time and social interaction. Schools are at very low risk for spread of the virus, and we know that other states and countries have been able to return their students to the classroom safely. It is past time for us to do the same.”

That view is not shared by some local school district leaders. Joe Dawidziak, superintendent for the Bonduel School District, sees Wimberger’s bill as a way to hamper individual districts from handling their own affairs. Although Bonduel’s closing this school year was for a shorter period than some of its neighbors, it was something the district did based on data from local and county numbers — not the state’s status as a whole.

“I’m not a huge fan of state government making local decisions for school districts,” Dawidziak said. “It’s probably not going to impact us too much going forward, but I do think there’s a danger depending on the makeup of (school) boards. Our board is fantastic, but I’m not a big fan at the state level trying to force decisions that should be made on a local level.”

In Bonduel’s case, the board put the decision of closing and reopening in the hands of Dawidziak and other administrators. Senate Bill 6 would take that authority away with the requirement of a supermajority board vote.

“We actually passed a policy that, in essence, we could move forward with whatever the decision would be without board approval,” Dawidziak said.

For Kelley Strike, superintendent for the Tigerton School District, her concern is more with timing. While she believes her school board would be in tandem with any decision she makes about closing the schools, she noted that it is not easy to gather a quorum of board members in a quick fashion.

“I understand where that’s coming from, but the timeliness of needing to make decisions, you can’t always wait for a board meeting,” Strike said. “Even to call a special meeting takes time, and in a case of this, you can suddenly have a number of staff or students who become ill, and you need to take immediate action.”

Strike noted that the board approved a policy on closing during the pandemic that was crafted by administrators, staff and the community. Senate Bill 6 would not impact that policy aside from the requirement of a board vote, but she believes that it might be possible for her to pull the trigger and then gather the board to ratify such a decision.

“I use that plan to make determinations or decisions, and I feel that works well,” Strike said. “I’ve gathered input from others, and that gives me a guide and discretion.”

Menominee Indian School District has had one of the stricter closures in the area, keeping on a virtual learning model for the entire first semester. The district plans to reopen to students on Feb. 1, but carefully. Keshena Primary School will have students in class for four days a week, while Menominee Indian Middle School will split its student population into two groups and have the groups meet two days a week in person and the rest of the week being virtual. Menominee Indian High School will remain virtual for the time being.

The decision to keep closed for the first semester was in tandem with the tribe’s COVID-19 restrictions, which had businesses closed for periods of time. Senate Bill 6 would no longer allow that, which is a cause of concern for Menominee Indian’s Superintendent Wendell Waukau.

“My first reaction to that is our schools need to be safe, and I think all schools want our kids back, but we want to do it safely,” Waukau said. “I don’t know if that bill addressed it from a safety standpoint.”

Waukau noted that the tribe was able to help a little with Wi-Fi connectivity in isolated areas, but he feels the education bill should provide funding and assistance for rural areas where internet infrastructure is non-existent.

“I think this needs to be a local decision because not all communities are the same. Some have more resources than others,” Waukau said.

lpulaski@newmedia-wi.com