Gov. Tony Evers acknowledged Thursday that local decisions on whether to do online learning in the face of the pandemic have been “messy” but didn't offer any advice on what Wisconsin school districts should do next semester.
The Democratic governor and former state schools superintendent issued an order in March closing all schools as the coronavirus pandemic took hold, forcing students and teachers to shift to hastily conceived online learning plans. He left it up to individual districts to decide how to approach the 2020-21 school year, with some districts choosing to go all virtual, some going with all in-person classes and others using a hybrid approach.
Many have had to pivot between in-person and virtual several times as student and staff infections wax and wane.
Concerns about long-term effects of isolation on children and the effectiveness of online learning have been growing, though, as the pandemic enters its 10th month. The nation's top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said last week that schools should try to reopen for in-person instruction.
Asked during a news conference how schools should approach the second semester, Evers didn't answer directly. He acknowledged that he's been “hands-off” on this issue for months and school boards have been making decisions aligned with advice from their local health departments, but the patchwork of decisions has been “messy.”
“It's worked for some school districts and (for some) school districts there's been some trauma around that,” he said.
He added that the results of online learning have been substandard.
“Clearly, every educator, and I’ll put myself in that case, is concerned about outcomes for kids and the present system has been anything but divine in that respect,” he said.
A fair amount of data now shows younger children aren't as likely to transmit the virus as older people and other schools around the country have been able to open successfully, the governor said. He acknowledged the issue is fraught with politics as teacher unions try to keep their members safe, but unions in New York, at least, have been working with city officials to ensure instructors have personal protective equipment and good ventilation in buildings.
“There seems to be a meeting of the minds around that,” Evers said.
He noted, too, that it appears federal regulators are on the verge of authorizing a vaccine developed by Pfizer. President-elect Joe Biden has said he wants teachers inoculated as soon as possible after health care workers and nursing home residents. Biden has said he will work to reopen most of the nation's schools during his first 100 days in office if Congress supplies funding for reconfiguring classrooms, procuring PPE and devising plans to accommodate at-risk teachers and students.
Wisconsin health officials confirmed 4,034 new infections Thursday, continuing a downward trend from record daily highs in mid-November. The numbers suggest that the surge in cases from Thanksgiving gatherings that experts feared hasn't materialized, although the number of tests administered has been dropping since the holiday. The state has now seen 426,099 confirmed cases.
The true number of infections in Wisconsin is likely higher because many haven’t been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected and not feel sick.
The number of people hospitalized with the virus stood at 1,535 as of Thursday afternoon, according to the Wisconsin Hospital Association. The number of hospitalizations also has been dropping since the state saw a record high of 2,277 on Nov. 17.
Dozens of people are still dying every day, though. State officials reported 57 more deaths Thursday, bringing the death toll to 3,944.