MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin’s top education official on Wednesday urged everyone headed into school buildings in coming days to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and wear masks — steps she said would help ensure schools don’t have to shut down amid a spike in new cases.
Jill Underly, state superintendent of schools, wrote an editorial urging a united front against the virus, noting that the situation was different than last year thanks to the availability of vaccines to help stop the spread. Many schools in Wisconsin didn’t open to in-person learning at the start of the 2020 academic year, or took a hybrid approach for at least part of the year.
“The asks are simple, and the rewards are great,” Underly said. “Wear a mask when inside buildings. Get vaccinated if you’re able to. Maintain safe distancing where possible. If we agree to collectively use these mitigation strategies, our school buildings remain open.”
Mask and vaccine policies in schools and elsewhere have become a contentious issue in Wisconsin and across the country. Outbreaks in dozens of districts, mostly in rural areas, have already forced schools to put a halt, at least temporarily, to in-person classes.
Wisconsin’s two largest districts, Milwaukee and Madison, were both looking into a vaccine mandate for teachers, something that Democratic Gov. Tony Evers said he supports. Evers is a former teacher, school administration and state superintendent for education.
In the Mequon-Thiensville School District in suburban Milwaukee, parents are trying to recall four of seven board members, in part for policies enacted related to requiring masks and contact tracing students who test positive for COVID-19.
There appears to be majority support nationwide for mask and vaccine requirements in schools.
About 6 in 10 Americans say students and teachers should be required to wear masks while in school, according to a poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Similar shares say teachers and eligible students should also be required to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.
Underly, who was superintendent of the rural Pecatonica district before being elected in April as state superintendent, said everyone must do a part to ensure schools are safe and can remain open. Most public schools in Wisconsin open on or after Sept. 1.
“I know firsthand that reaching universal consensus on any issue, in any community, is challenging,” Underly said. “As our nation and state experiences another surge in this COVID pandemic, we need to give school staff and school board members some grace as they make these important decisions.”
She said that school leaders are doing what is best for children and trying to avoid disruptions in learning. She noted the rapid closures of schools across the country where there were limited mitigation efforts in place.
“We all want our schools open,” she said. “We must collectively do our part to make sure that is possible.”
Infections and hospitalizations in Wisconsin are spiking to levels not seen since January due to the more contagious delta variant.