On October 14, 2020 at the SDW Board of Education meeting, the Education Association of Waukesha (EAW), a coalition of School District of Waukesha staff and educators, Vice President Jennifer Rath stated that her and fellow members of the EAW felt they "were left out of the decision-making process" in regard to the District's decision to change from a hybrid learning model to the current full in-person one. She then proceeded to go over exactly what the EAW was asking of the District in regard to COVID policies. The EAW also created a petition citing concerns they felt about the district's COVID policies. At the time of her speech, the petition had 650+ signatures. It now has 750. In their petition and Ms. Rath's statement, the EAW made three clear demands for the district: clear and specific gating criteria; more input from teachers, students and staff; and more stringent guidelines regarding contact tracing, and quarantine.
When we asked Ms. Rath for comment on this article, she was unable to respond due to district regulations on "how staff communicate with students regarding district decisions or policies." Despite Ms. Rath's lips being sealed shut by the red tape of bureaucracy, I'll offer my analysis of her statement and the EAW's petition in this article.
Ms. Rath began her speech by citing a need from the district to establish clear and specific gating criteria. The EAW provided an example of such criteria by sharing the guidelines one school district in Minnesota used (see picture below). From October 7 to October 20, Waukesha County went from having a cumulative total of 8,598 confirmed COVID Cases to 10,939 confirmed cases, an increase of 2,341 cases in that 14-day period. There are 404,000 people in Waukesha County, meaning that in the last 14 days there have been roughly 58 cases per 10,000 people in Waukesha County. This is a significant increase from the rate when the petition was originally written on October 11. Using the example gating criteria given by the EAW, that would suggest at present, everyone in the district should go virtual.
This, however, isn't the only gating criteria suggested by the EAW. In Ms. Rath's statement, she mentioned how other districts in the state such as Elmbrook had clear and specific gating criteria. Information about Elmrbook's gating criteria was hard to find, other than vague language stating:
"District, Community and County data and information will be assessed weekly by the Medical Advisory Board and Senior Leadership Team and reported to the District’s Governance Team. Any change to the District’s approach to K-12, in-person learning requires approval of the entire Board of Education."
This is all a bunch of jargon which means that decisions on when to switch learning models will be decided by the district based on data. That data is not exactly specified. Elmbrook does appear to have metrics on which to to base any decision, as seen by it shutting down Tonawanda Elementary School and Brookfield East High School. Both schools went temporarily virtual due to several staff members getting COVID. Despite this, Elmbrook's procedures still appear to not fully meet the standard of clarity that the EAW wants. Tonawanda went virtual for ten days, compared to Brookfield East's five, despite them having a similar number of cases. What makes this decision more perplexing is the fact that Tonawanada is an elementary school, which are considered in Elmbrook's COVID plan to be allowed to return to in-person learning much sooner than high schools such as Brookfield East.
After talking about clear and specific gating procedures, Ms. Rath proceeded to talk about the District's need to collect regular feedback from everyone who stands to be affected by the District's decision. Exactly how feedback would be collected was not specified in the petition or Ms. Rath's statement. Ms. Rath did, however, criticize the district for making decisions based on "surveys from several months ago." The surveys Ms. Rath referred to are most likely surveys sent to SDW parents in late July and early August this year. If what Ms. Rath and the EAW allege is true, that would cast serious concern over the decision-making process that the Board went through in deciding to adopt a full in-person learning model.
Finally in her speech, Ms. Rath talked about how the EAW wanted to have more clear guidelines on returning to school after getting COVID or being quarantined. In their petition, they EAW also discussed how the transition to in-person school would make it almost impossible for social distancing to happen at schools in the district. This is a claim that seems to be true, with Waukesha South having over 130 students quarantined as of October 23, despite only 10 active cases, giving South a ratio of 13 students quarantined per case of COVID. This can be compared to Brookfield Central, who, at the time of this writing, had 3.33 students quarantined per case of COVID. If you look at numbers for SDW as a whole, it's 20.9 students quarantined per active case, compared to Elmbrook's 11.06 students quarantined per active case.
This level of students in quarantine seems even more concerning when you take into account the EAW's concern that the district's contact tracing staff is understaffed, making it likely the number is an undercount, with many who should be quarantined not being quarantined. An example of this is the district's inability to determine whom infected people interact with at lunch. This large number also seems to support the EAW's claim that it's impossible to maintain social distancing with full face-to-face schooling. Of course, you could also argue that the number shows how much more effective the district's contact tracing is, but that would suggest Elmbrook's contact tracing is ineffective, which is unlikely, considering it is ranked the #1 public school district in Wisconsin.
Ms. Rath's statement and the EAW's petition criticized many facets of the School District of Waukesha's Board of Education's COVID decision-making process. Most of these critiques are valid, supported by recent data. The Board, perhaps acknowledging the validity of these claims (or due to public pressure), attempted to answer some of these concerns later in the meeting. Those responses will be analyzed in an article next week.