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Green Bay eliminates criteria, ties return to vaccinations

By Heather Graves

GREEN BAY – After months of basing its decision to bring students back to school on positive COVID-19 cases in the community, the Green Bay school board has changed course.

During a special board meeting, Tuesday, Jan. 19, board members approved a plan which now hinges on vaccination availability to school staff.

The plan brings back elementary students, as well as sixth and ninth graders, three weeks after the first day vaccinations are available to teachers and staff.

Students in seventh and eighth grade and 10th-12th will return a week later.

“I feel strongly about these vaccinations, and for good reason,” said Trustee Laura McCoy. “It is a tangible, real thing. It affects real people, and these people teach our students and are close to our students. We always claim to care about that. Why don’t we care about that now? When did it become shameful to put the health and safety of our students and staff first? This is what we have been arguing about, and dealing with for months on end.”

An original proposal, made available to families late last week, had students returning in phases beginning Feb. 15, but because of the uncertainty of when the vaccine will be available to teachers, the board ultimately voted to leave a return open-ended dependent on vaccination availability.

Teachers and school staff could be part of the phase 1B vaccination group, which should be eligible for the vaccine soon.

However, during Monday’s meeting, Superintendent Steve Murley said Gov. Tony Evers has given priority in the 1B group to individuals age 65 and older.

“I hate to throw a curveball in the works, but I just have to share this with you,” Murley said. “I was just notified that apparently the state government has put a light wrench in the works here. They’ve approved those over 65 in the 1B group are going before teachers.”

This led to the elimination of specific dates, and instead ties a return to when teachers receive the vaccine’s first dose.

Murley said no specific date has been released yet regarding when teachers/staff will be invited to receive the vaccine, but hopes the information will be available in the coming days.

“I did work with other large districts in the state to send a letter to the governor imploring him to put educators first,” he said. “We put that letter out late last week. So a little disappointed. I’ll be perfectly honest with you, I have an 81-year-old mother who is on that list over 65, so obviously, happy to hear that she’s going to be in line to get that. But frustrated that our teachers aren’t first, with the recognition of how important the vaccine is to help get our staff back into school with our kids safely.”

Murley said he continues to work closely with local health care providers and is confident when vaccinations are available to school staff, they will be distributed quickly.

While encouraged, vaccinations are not mandatory for school staff to return to school.

The board stressed while teacher vaccinations are a large part in the district’s fight against COVID-19, it isn’t the end-all, cure-all, noting the remaining mitigating strategies recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) still need to be in place.

“It is also important to point out the vaccine isn’t a magic wand,” said Eric Vanden Heuvel, board president. “From the CDC (the vaccine is) one of many mitigating strategies along with masking and washing and all those other things.”

Murley said the district is ready with necessary precautions and personal protective equipment for a return to in-person instruction, and will do whatever possible to keep students, teachers and staff safe.

He stressed however, social distancing cannot be guaranteed throughout all schools or on buses.

When students do return, the district will follow a blended model for all elementary grades which is in-person four days a week, with Wednesdays remaining virtual.

Secondary students will follow an A/B cohort model with two days a week of onsite instruction.

March 22-28, the week after the district’s scheduled spring break, is designated as an all virtual learning week.

All grades will return to their learning models March 29.

“It was excruciating at times, but I think we did good work here tonight, believe it or not,” McCoy said. “A lot of people, our staff are prepared. We covered an enormous amount of territory. And for that I thank you all.”

As part of the return plan, the district intends to hire its own, temporary contract tracers in an effort to remain proactive and remove the district’s need to rely on outside sources.

If positive COVID-19 cases in Brown County reach 1,000 per 100,000 people over a two-week period, an emergency board meeting will be called to discuss next steps.

The administration is expected to provide the board with a plan in the coming weeks of options if cases were to skyrocket again.

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