LAKE MILLS — Some teachers in the Lake Mills Area School District are looking to district officials to provide them with a safer teaching environment after filing grievances with the district last month, due to the surge in coronavirus cases in the state. Their goal is to move the district entirely to virtual learning until the spread of the virus is contained.
About 20 educators filed safety grievances with the district at a step five, which is a violation of the board’s policy, the grievance is a process that raises their concerns to district officials and eventually to the board of education.
“Various staff members had been contacting the board and the superintendent and trying to advocate for some clear measures that would tell us when we should do virtual learning and make sure we keep our students and staff and the community safe, and we just weren’t getting anywhere with it,” said Brenda Morris, Lake Mills High School library media director and English teacher. “The formal grievance procedure gives us a way to force them to respond to us in a more organized way.”
Members of the Lake Mills Education Association have made their views on in-person learning clear at school board meetings over the last couple of months, but parents in the district have also been pushing for in-person learning, which the district has had for the majority of the school year. The board has stood by their commitment, made in August, to the community to keep school in-person when possible.
“We met in closed session with the board last month, only because the teachers initially filed the grievance at step five, which is not per board policy,” said Tonya Olson, district administrator. “I met with the board and with legal counsel and they opted to make the teachers follow board policy.”
Twenty-one teachers filed workplace safety grievances at step five, going straight to the board. The board instructed the teachers to start at step one of the process. Not all of the teachers who filed the initial grievance at step five have filed another at step one.
Morris said, “We did start by filing our grievance with the school board in hopes they would consider them because the decisions we want to impact are made at the district level and they said we had to go through the process.”
“When you think about the 120 teachers we have this is only a small cross section. I don’t think this is representative of our teaching staff as a whole,” Olson said.
The grievance procedure includes step one: meeting with their building principals; step two: submitting a written grievance to their principal; step three: appeal to the district administrator; step four: appeal to an impartial hearing officer and step five: appeal to the board of education. The grievance only raises through the steps to the board of education if it is not solved.
“The principals have done individual meetings with the teachers and have been in the rooms to problem solve to see what else we can do to make things feel safer,” Olson said.
Some issues were resolved by removing furniture from classrooms, bringing in smaller desks and relocating classrooms to bigger spaces when possible, she said.
“I did submit my grievance to Cale Vogel, the building principal, and he’s done what he can, which are the measures we do in school; we are enforcing mask rules, we are distancing as much as we can, some of our classrooms are too small; we’re sanitizing, all that stuff we can do at the building level we are doing,” Morris said. “I have now sent my appeal to Dr. Olson because what I’m really after here is a change in our district level decision making process.”
“Out of the 21 who originally submitted grievances, not everybody went to step 2,” Olson said.
There is a 10-day timeline involved in the response to the step-one grievance.
“They are probably more upset that we changed some of the metrics in the pandemic plan. We are looking at staffing and at what specifically is going on in Lake Mills, not just the county. We are taking all of that into account on staying in-person or not.”
One of the grievances obtained by The Leader states the district doesn’t have clear or explicit criteria for when to shift to virtual learning.
“This is not about teachers not wanting to work or not wanting to do our job,” Morris emphasized. “We do agree in-person learning would be best for our students, but we simply do not think it’s safe right now. The Jefferson County Public Health Department has already encouraged our school district to go to virtual learning based on the seven-day average cases.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, the Jefferson County Health Department reported the seven-day rolling average of cases is 90 cases daily per 100,000. According to the health department’s dashboard Lake Mills has seen 306 cases of COVID-19.
“They think we don’t have a clear metric and we do have several things we are looking at and that’s no different than all the school districts in the state,” Olson said. “We still haven’t seen the spread of COVID within the schools. We’ve been able to catch it. Parents have been really responsible as far as notifying us right away. I think as long as we are able to do that we will stay open as long as possible.”
The majority of the complaints have come from teachers at the middle and high school levels where the spread can be worse.
“We’ve done everything in our power to mitigate the risk in the classroom setting. At the high school level, we’ve been able to keep the class sizes small,” Olson said.
She said at the middle school keeping classes smaller has been more of a challenge without hiring additional staff.
As of Nov. 13, according to the district’s COVID-19 dashboard, the district had 64 students and staff members in quarantine and 10 positive cases districtwide.
“What we want is to try to provide the best education we can to our students, but we want them to be safe we want to protect our students and our community, and we really don’t want the school to become a place where people are being exposed to this virus unnecessarily,” Morris said.
Morris said people should consider how unique of a situation teachers are in.
“What other workplace do you have 20 or more people in a room for over an hour at a time.”
She also said the bigger question is for the Wisconsin Legislature.
“What can our legislature do to help people to be able to stay at home more and take care of their kids? I feel really bad for the parents who need to go to work and need a place for their children to go and yet that’s still not safe. How can we help parents be in a position to also stay home with their children if they need to but not lose income. That seems like a answer that needs to come from a higher power than a school district.”
Olson echoed Morris’ thoughts saying until further direction comes from the state it’s going to be hard for individual school districts closing one at a time to stop the spread of the virus.