UPDATE: This story has been updated as of 2:45 p.m. Wednesday to include comments from KUSD teachers, parents and board members. 

KENOSHA ⏤ The Kenosha Unified School District will switch to all-virtual learning beginning Nov. 30.

The KUSD School Board voted 5-1 to approve the measure off a motion from board member Mary Modder. Board member Todd Battle cast the only opposing vote.

All-virtual learning will last in the district through Jan. 8, 2021, as a result of Modder’s passed motion.

The school board also suspended winter sports from Nov. 30 to Jan. 3, 2021, with sports allowed to resume Jan. 4, 2021.

The move is a complete reversal of the district’s earlier response to calls from county health officials to switch to all-virtual learning.

How this affects students, staff

As a result of the board’s vote, instructional staff will have the choice of working from home or at their school buildings beginning on Nov. 30. However, administrators and secretarial staff will still report to their buildings.

While the majority of students will be shifting to virtual-only instruction, students with Individual Education Plans (IEP) and their teachers will have the ability to still meet in-person as part of their plan.

Teachers who plan to work from home will need to notify their principals by Nov. 30.

While the move may help taper off the increase in COVID-19 cases seen in the county recently, Tarik Hamdan, the district’s chief financial officer, made it clear that “people will lose wages.”

The food service programs are likely to continue with two meals ⏤ breakfast and lunch ⏤ per day during the all-virtual period. To achieve this, the district will likely set up eight regional food service locations for the district’s families.

Students could go to any of the regional sites to get their meals, officials said.

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Teachers beg district to go virtual

The large number of the district’s teachers who called in to comment Tuesday evening caused the citizens’ comment portion to go beyond its allotted 45 minutes.

Lincoln Middle School teacher Colleen Hanson address the KUSD school board Tuesday night. Screenshot.

As the board listened, teacher and personnel staff after another came on the screen via Zoom or in-person to voice concerns over KUSD’s refusal to go virtual prior to Tuesday’s meeting.

Lincoln Middle School sixth-grade teacher Colleen Hanson set the tone for what the district could expect to hear from teachers.

She began her comments by highlighting the dictionary definition of the word “strong.” Then, she contrasted it against the hashtag campaign by Kenosha Unified, “#KUSDStrong”.

“Strong would mean using a sanitizer that kills bacteria and viruses instead of using the 0% alcohol slop that my children wear on their hands like a shield daily, believing that they are protecting each other ⏤ when you know, I know, we know, it does not protect any of them,” she said.

“Strong would mean we practice what we preach and follow the science that we teach. And when a health entity says, ‘Go virtual,’ we do. Because science is real, even if we’d rather it not be because we are inconvenienced by the truth of our reality.”

She went on to highlight numbers ⏤ including the districts reported more than 200 cases of COVID-19 so far this school year ⏤ to show how detrimental in-person learning has been to her and her colleagues.

‘I am the most dangerous person here’

In fact, Hanson spoke to the board while quarantined, just as she had at the board’s last meeting, because of exposure in her classroom. So far, three COVID-19 exposures have occured in her classroom.

“Who’s watching my children while I’m quarantined? It’s staff who are giving up their prep time and exposing themselves to another group of students, sometimes from another building,” she said.

As a result of the district’s actions, she does not feel KUSD strong, she said.

“I honestly feel KUSD weak, KUSD exhausted, KUSD ignored, anxious and drowning,” Hanson said. “And I have to tell you from my personal experience, I have to wear a mask in my home to protect my own family because I am the most dangerous person here.”

‘Russian roulette’

KUSD parent Angie Aker had some very pointed remarks to make to Tom Duncan and Superintendent Dr. Sue Savaglio-Jarvis Tuesday night. Screenshot.

KUSD parent Angie Aker took KUSD Superintendent Dr. Sue Savaglio-Jarvis and Duncan to task over their recent joint statement saying KUSD would stay in-person.

Particularly, Aker attacked the wording of the email highlighting that Kenosha County Health Officer Jen Freiheit’s recommendation for schools to go all-virtual was just a “suggestion.”

“Your words implied that, were it really something to be taken seriously, that it would have been at a higher level than a recommendation,” Aker said. “But you know very well that ⏤ because the local health department’s statutory authority has been limited by the Wisconsin GOP’s court challenges ⏤ a recommendation is, in fact, the strongest thing within Dr. Freiheit’s ability to issue.

“She has urged you to the utmost of her authority to live up to your responsibility to protect these kids, and you have looked her and everyone else in the eye and pretended all that she gave you was friendly advice.”

Aker further pressed the board to move instruction to all-virtual because, with or without contact tracing data, officials must know spread is happening because of schools too.

“Mr. Duncan, I believe deep down you know what you’re doing is wrong,” Aker said. “You don’t have to keep doubling down on it. Dr. Savaglio-Jarvis, I’ll make no similar appeal to you, because I no longer believe that you even have the empathy to do what is right. 

“Put the decision up to the entire school board for a vote, so we can see who exactly is voting for death and school-based super spreading.”

‘Bleeding great educators’

KEA President Tanya Kitts-Lewinski tells the board Tuesday night they are “bleeding great educators” due to the district’s COVID-19 response. Screenshot.

Safety reports submitted by educators in the district have not highlighted a safe environment, said Kenosha Education Association President Tanya Kitts-Lewinski.

According to those reports, she said, “the district is unwilling and/or incapable of implementing procedures to limit spread in Kenosha schools, and consequently the community.”

“Flagrantly ignoring the recommendations of the Kenosha County Health Department is reckless, irresponsible and puts our entire community in danger,” she continued.

“We are bleeding great educators to retirement and resignations due to the poor decisions of this board on a daily basis, and it will be the students who suffer the consequences of that. …. You’re making decisions based on political alliances and it’s morally wrong.”

‘We are KUSD strong, but not with any help from you’

Bradford English Teacher Danielle Defazio made sure that the board knew that her students, and the rest in the district, are not dumb.

“Here’s the thing: Our students are strong, and they are smart,” she said. “They know what is right and wrong.

“They know how disgraceful it is that teachers have to remain neutral, that we have to water down our thoughts so that we are an easy pill to swallow.”

She told the board students “want us to stand up for them, want us to have the difficult conversations so that they can learn to do the same.”

Like Hanson, she, too, took offense to the idea of #KUSDStrong, or the district using it.

“Please, recognize that, yes, we are KUSD strong, but not with any help from you,” she said.

“From you, we are consistently told, ‘You do not matter. Your life does not matter. Your experiences do not matter. I am more than happy to negate all of that ridiculousness that is touted by our district and tell our kids that they matter, to learn from our kids’ shared experiences and to stand up against inequity.

“And if making that speech, makes me THAT teacher, fine. I’m fine with getting into good trouble for my kids. At least my conscience can handle that rather than being silent.”

Parents thank district for having a choice

Two parents with children in the district came to Tuesday’s meeting to voice their support for parents still being able to choose between in-person and virtual instruction.

The first parent, Jessica Cutler, explained how the ability to switch her younger son, a 4K student, to in-person has made a positive impact on his behavior. 

“Started off rough, he only got to be in-person as of (Monday),” she said. “I wish I could tell you that it’s going well, but I don’t know. It’s only the second day. He comes back smiling. He comes back already saying stuff that he never said before just from being in class those two days.” 

Her other son, a first-grade student, remains virtual.

“I continued virtual for our first-grader because he seems to be doing okay,” Cutler said. “Some days he cries because he doesn’t understand why he can’t even talk to the students in his class, why the teacher just kind of brushes him off because they have other stuff to do.

“They don’t have a moment to speak to one another. They don’t have a moment to be social with each other or any of that.”

While she considers her family lucky, with one parent at home during the day, she acknowledged that a switch to in-person would put strain on many other families.

“For those who (don’t have many options), you’re going to flood out the daycare centers that other parents are going to rely on just to keep their careers as well,” Cutler said. “So thank you for giving us that choice as parents to do what’s best for our students.”

‘Give us a chance’

This mother addressed the school board Tuesday night, begging them to keep the in-person option and give single parents “a chance.” Screenshot.

The second parent who spoke Tuesday night rested on the opposite side of the spectrum from Cutler in options.

A frontline worker at a hospital with three young children, she struggles to get sleep while working her full-time, third-shift job and help her kids with learning at home.

“I’m also trying to get sleep so I can wake up and also provide for my children. Because I’m able to work out so far and be able to take care of my children. But I also need sleep at the same time,” she said, starting to cry at the podium. “When are you guys going to … shutting down in school and going completely virtual and leaving us single parents that are having no other choice, literally. 

“I’m drowning of sleep; I have not slept because I’m trying to keep up with my kids. I’m trying to be there for my son. Trying to help the teacher out and learn at the same time.”

She pleaded with the district to keep the option for in-person instruction to give single mothers and single parents “a chance.”

“Please, for the people, for the single moms or the people that are working nights, give us a chance to keep our kids in school to give us a chance.

“I’m not talking about teachers being babysitters. No, these are my children. But help me out here. Help my children succeed the way they need to be.”

Duncan calls for switch to virtual

After public comments, Duncan gave his president’s comments, addressing the spread of COVID-19 in the community and KUSD’s response.

In his remarks, Duncan called the coronavirus pandemic and resulting changes around the world “a real-life nightmare.”

Duncan stated that he recently received a holiday card, wishing him a safe gathering with family and friends ⏤ something the Kenosha County Division of Health has cautioned against.

“Unbelievable,” Duncan said. “This simply cannot and should not be happening if we’re going to flatten this disease.”

He believes that people have reached a point of “pandemic fatigue.”

“I get it. I’m tired. You’re tired. However, it is not a time to become less fearful of COVID-19. Yes, we do know more, a lot more. And thank goodness a vaccine is coming. 

“What is truly known at this time is that the virus is extremely efficient in how it is transmitted, and now, is well established in our great state of Wisconsin, in our #KenoshaStrong community and across our country.”

Metrics have been followed

During the pandemic, KUSD has established metrics with the local health department for how to tell whether buildings should or should not be closed. The district has followed those metrics, he said. 

“However, I think we have reached the point where we are beyond surge in our community and the escalating numbers of positives that we must start to consider an alternative approach,” Duncan said.

He encouraged the board to vote to switch all instruction to virtual learning, with the exception of students whose IEPs necessitate in-person instruction or live in environments where virtual is not an option. 

“I feel that, during this time period, teachers should teach virtually from home. This should decrease some issues of safety and pandemic fatigue. This would allow for all school buildings to again be thoroughly sanitized.

“Unfortunately, due to going virtually, winter sports should be suspended during this timeframe as they are indoor and schools would be closed.”

He also asked Savaglio-Jarvis to instruct principals to select three to five staff in their building and form opinions of what has and what has not worked in the first half of the school year.

Their feedback will be due to the board by Dec. 7. 

Communication with health department

The district needs to “work further with Dr. Jen and our school leadership on enhancing communication,” Duncan said.

“I also believe by taking this action, we will be partnering with our community in re-asking everyone to do your part. Wear your mask. Stay at home as much as possible. Avoid social gatherings. Socially distance. Wash your hands frequently.

“The consequences of not doing so will only cause our positive case numbers to increase, and place many of our families and friends at risk.”

In closing his comments, he also asked for civility as the pandemic continues.

“We must continue to be respectful and responsible to each other,” Duncan said. “If we don’t, this virus, this disease, this pandemic will never be flattened.”

Modder, Wade voice support

Modder made a motion soon into the agenda item on the Return 2020 plan to move instruction to all-virtual.

However, instead of returning Jan. 4, she moved for students to return Jan. 11, due to fears over possible spread from New Year’s Eve parties.

She also moved that teachers would have the option of working from home during that period, “to give them a break.”

Board member Dan Wade also supported all-virtual instruction, appealing to common sense.

“As everybody knows, I’ve been a strong advocate for in-person learning,” Wade said. “And I still am. However, I’ve often spoken before about how common sense has disappeared. Well, I still got some common sense. And I think this is a time to apply it.”

Battle solely opposed

The only opposition from the board to Modder’s motion came from Todd Battle.

Battle stated that, while he does respect the opinion of others and has listened to them, “I don’t agree with the direction here for a number of reasons.”

“I think we’re shifting the burden from schools to everywhere else in the community, and I think that’s clear,” he said. “We’re still not seeing consistent evidence that the rate of COVID spread is higher in schools than it is anywhere else in the community.”

The board is being inconsistent, he said, and has “repeatedly done that.”

“I’m the one person on this board that is a parent of school-aged children and has a spouse that works in the school systems,” Battle said. “They all want to be in the schools. I also really worry that this January 4 ⏤ we’ve already moved it once tonight ⏤ that we’re going to keep moving that date and we’re not going to get back in schools. 

KUSD school board member Rebecca Stevens discusses options for the district to help parents during the all-virtual period. Screenshot.

“We’re going to lose a year of in-person instruction.”

Lastly, he made it clear he didn’t like that “we have lots of time to talk with our team and talk with our staff and have these discussions, and we show up at a meeting and give a speech and spring it on the rest of the board.”

“I think it’s ridiculous,” Battle said. “I will not vote for it.”

Most board members agree, try to find uses for staff

Board members Yolanda Adams and Rebecca Stevens asked the district to help parents who will now have to seek out child care.

“We have to do something to help those parents so that they will be able to go to work and feel that their children are able to do the virtual learning because it is very difficult,” Adams said. “It is hard on the students.

“We all have to come together to come up with new solutions, I think, in this time of COVID that we help those parents. We’re here for you; we’re going to help you figure it out.”

Using staff to help parents

Stevens asked school officials to even look into alternative options for staff. This could include using some staff to help instruct children at home.

“I am so thankful for everyone who has come forward, agree or disagree, I respect your viewpoint,” Stevens said. “I respect you as an individual. And we need to pull together.

“We’re only going to beat this virus and become a healthier community by working together and coming up with solutions.”

Rating: 1 out of 5.

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