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A first obligation

O ur local school boards handle serious issues, but, normally, not matters of life or death. That will change over the next few months as boards decide how to reopen schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.

School boards will be tasked to provide as normal an education as possible to school children given the local threat of the coronavirus. There is some room here for error, but not much. A bad decision could prove tragic.

We all need to support school boards in this difficult work. That includes parents, community members and even our state legislators.

The first big decision school boards will need to make is whether social distancing of six feet between individuals must be maintained. This is key. If social distancing is to be enforced, there is no return to traditional school where, to be efficient, students are typically packed into classrooms, locker rooms and cafeterias. School boards will need to rethink the scale of everything. Classrooms that were designed to comfortably seat 31 students will now only be able to accommodate a dozen pupils. School buses that can seat 50 students or more will only be able to carry two dozen. Cafeterias and auditoriums will only be able to handle a fraction of their normal number of students.

Once a school board agrees to maintain social distancing, school schedules must change. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction tossed out a group of possible schedules on Monday. Maybe one group of students attends school two days of the week. Another group attends school for two different days. Maybe all PreK-6 grade students will be schooled in regular classrooms, but not middle and high schoolers. Maybe students go to school four days one week, but not the next. The variations on these scheduling alternatives are countless.

School boards must build in flexibility to their COVID-19 plans no matter what schedule they opt for. In Marathon County right now, the number of COVID-19 cases are relatively low, but, in recent weeks, the county has seen a surge in cases and an uptick in hospitalizations. Maybe the county caseload will remain low, but possibly it will spike, perhaps uncontrollably. School boards need to be able to respond to the changing threat of COVID-19.

And this is where state legislators have to do their part. They need to give local school boards flexibility under state revenue caps to be able to meet the needs of students as the pandemic wave rolls across Wisconsin. Without flexibility, school boards might choose cheap ways out that might not be best for education: bring students back en masse, filling classrooms as they have in past, betting that students don’t get sick, or alternatively, closing in-person school and, like the last part of this past school year, have students do all schoolwork on home computers. The state should help local school boards find better options. The state may need, for example, to give districts authority to pay for more bus runs to safely bring students to school. Or to give school boards the budget flexibility to hire classroom aides to help teachers who, under some COVID-19 scenarios, must prepare both in-class and virtual lessons for students. Nearly everybody agrees it should be up to local school boards to figure out how to reopen their schools safely based on local conditions. The state, however, has its thumb on local school budgets. It needs to loosen its spending regulations so school boards can exercise proper and responsible local control.

In all this, school boards, community members and state legislators need to remember that school is not an option. It is required and backed up by a truancy law. Unless they make other arrangements, students must attend. This means school can’t just be “safe as possible.” School must be safe... period. No family should need to sign a liability waiver to send a child to school.

Over the next months, school boards will debate how to reopen schools. This won’t be an easy discussion. Parents and children, tired of home-based education, want normal schooling back. But the COVID-19 virus is real and hasn’t gone away. Our hope is that as school boards reopen schools, they reopen safe schools. That is their first obligation to the children, their families and the community at large.