By RICHARD JENKINS
Ironwood — The same day the Gogebic-Ontonagon Intermediate School District announced its six member districts were extending their period of remote learning in response to rising COVID-19 numbers in the area, the Ironwood Area Schools board of education met Thursday to discuss whether that was the right decision for the district — ultimately deciding to follow the Western Upper Peninsula Health Department’s recommendation and continue for at least the next week.
The vote means the district will continue with remote learning through Nov. 13
WUPHD health officer Kate Beer addressed the board remotely Thursday to answer questions and provide some context to the department’s recommendation to continue keeping kids at home.
Beer said Gogebic County’s positive test rate of 14.6% and new rate of 519 cases per million puts it in the highest risk category where the district’s policies for having kids in school weren’t enough and a switch to remote learning was the only option.
She said she didn’t question that in-person learning was ideal, but said the current situation meant the dangers were still present for in-person learning. She also acknowledged the impact remote learning has on families and said that was one reason — along with the county’s numbers trending in the right direction — that the department was only recommending a week of remote learning rather than two weeks.
“This is very disruptive for their lives, to take them in and out of school like this. So I don’t want to extend this anymore than we have to,” Beer said. “If we can get those numbers to start coming down within the next week, then maybe we have other options within the school building to make it a safer environment for the children.”
She explained she was referring to practices like wearing masks and social distancing during the school day.
Not everyone was comfortable with the decision to continue remote learning.
Board president Amanda Sprague argued the decision put kids at risk socially, emotionally and academically, and said it bothered her to see people she knows in the health care field have to go to work and fight the virus while the local districts seem to be hunkering down.
She said the decision also forces families to choose between working and taking care of their kids.
“I think we put a lot of our families in a bad situation by closing the school like this,” Sprague said.
There was a discussion about the lack of childcare options in the area and what families were supposed to do with young kids who would normally be in school while their parents worked.
Although there was some talk of exploring creating some kind of daycare for families with essential workers, several board members argued Thursday night wasn’t the time to work out all the details.
Board member Clancey Byrne said no one was excited about the decision but he didn’t feel like the department’s recommendation was intended to be a reflection of the district’s policies designed to prevent the spread of the virus, but rather it was a response to the community’s attitude toward the pandemic.
“As a store retail manager, I can tell you from the last few weeks I’ve watched this community decide they’re done with the social distancing, they’re done with the masks, they’re done with keeping separate,” he said. “It’s not our school that’s a reflection of this. We as a community have not done our best.”
Beer echoed the call that the community’s actions were what would enable a return to in-person learning, and warned that the decision may be taken out of the hands of the locals if the numbers weren’t reversed.
“Our communities need to understand that in order for us to continue with in-person education, we need to step up our game a little bit and work towards a community approach towards mitigation,” Beer said, adding the state may step in and downgrade the region to Phase 3 if the changes can’t be made at the local level.
Also advocating for the district to follow the health department’s recommendation was Dave Martinson, who spoke on behalf of the district’s unions.
“We would love to be teaching in-person — it’s the preferred method, it’s the proven method. However, it needs to be done in a safe manner; following the recommendations of our experts, not just a gut feeling,” Martinson said.
He said roughly 90% of his members support following the health department’s recommendation and argued there were several reasons for being concerned about the return to in-person learning — including that it would put people at risk, the district could potentially open itself and its employees up to litigation if someone got sick or died and that it potentially set the district on a slippery slope of choosing which recommendations to follow and which to ignore.
Ultimately, several board members questioned why Ironwood was the only district in the GOISD debating going against the recommendation and argued it was best to defer to the experts.
“To me, the professionals really know what’s happening,” member Steve Thomas said. “I can sit and read articles, you can read four articles and you’ve got two for and two against — but none of them are doctors or nurses or health personnel.”