Uncommon Denominator

Parents and students in Oak Creek, Wisconsin continue to fight the bureaucracy of a school board who is more determined to appease an obstructive advocacy group than the students and families of the district.

After finally moving to a hybrid learning plan, the school board held an emergency meeting this past Thursday to advise parents that the district would be returning to an all-virtual learning plan. This came just two weeks after the district had decided to return to the classroom after a month of virtual learning.

Less than two weeks ago, I wrote about the ways in which the Oak Creek-Franklin Joint School District (OCFJSD) has been undermined and compromised by a radical advocacy group, who claim to stand for students and families but aggressively disregarded the wishes of nearly 75% of the district’s families.

On Thursday, the school board voted by a margin of 4-3 to return to virtual-only learning. And once again, the lobbying of a small, shortsighted group of political activists pretending to be parent advocates led the charge by proxy of their private ties to members of the board.

We should first understand the effects of their decision, which entirely disregards the greater well being of the students they should be fighting for instead of against. Earlier this year, the Washington Post published an article that outlined five key areas that should not be ignored when it comes to the negative effects of virtual learning. Parents across the country, to include those with students in OCFJSD, continue to struggle mostly with the last two points: isolation and effectiveness.

Not only are the minds of our youth not conditioned to sustain extended periods of virtual learning, but the emotional toll is also having a considerable impact on even the most mature among the student body. The secondary effects on mental health are culminating in problems with a lack of sleep, prolonged daytime fatigue, anxiety, withdrawal, and depression. With such a low rate of physical impact from COVID-19 among school-aged kids, the emotional impacts for months and years to come will arguably be far more devastating to both the intellectual and emotional development of our children.

The longer students are out of the classroom, the more difficult it will be to recondition their minds and emotions to adjust back to it – and the more unlikely it is that the gap in curricular progress will ever be bridged.

For students and families in Oak Creek, there are two causes to these effects that are not being scrutinized enough.

The first is the criteria by which the school is making a determination to again close; the burden rate, which is a measure of positive community COVID-19 tests measured against the total population of the community – and then adjusted to reflect a “per 100,000 residents” variable.

This might make sense if the environments being measured were a constant, but they are not. Compared to the outside community, the schools are a much more controlled environment, in which significant measures have been implemented according to the FAQ section on the district’s website.

And, those measures are working. OCFJSD currently has 7 active COVID cases, as of October 15, 2020. This reflects 00.10% of the student body in the district. This is demonstrably low, even compared to national benchmarks. A new study was published less than two weeks ago by Dr. Sallie Permar, director of the Children’s Health and Discovery Institute at Duke University Medical School. The study looked at nearly 950,000 students across more than 1,000 schools across the country. The percentage of students with confirmed cases is 00.14%, slightly higher than the current numbers in Oak Creek. Those are numbers as of the end of September.

The district does not currently have any active staff cases of COVID.

Those pushing to keep kids out of schools may argue that Wisconsin is seeing a higher surge of cases. If we take a look at the dashboard for Franklin School District, which borders Oak Creek, it shows 16 active cases of COVID, as of October 16, 2020. This represents 00.34% of the student body in Franklin. A number almost three times higher than Oak Creek. Franklin, however, continues to have confidence in their own established control measures and has decided to keep kids in the classroom.

There have been a total of 15 student COVID cases in Oak Creek so far this school year. We can reasonably compare this to a third area school district, Elmbrook School District, which has remained open after 13 student COVID cases so far this school year. Elmbrook has similar demographics & control measures, as well as a similar sized body of students and staff.

The point of these comparisons is that we should be benchmarking against similar environments, with similar control measures, demographics, and risk factors. Schools in Oak Creek are demonstrating a lower COVID impact than both local and national averages. The only difference being that Oak Creek is now closed again while the others remain open.

Considering the undeniable statistical data that would overwhelmingly support the continued hybrid model of learning, we can only conclude that the factors that continue to antagonize the decisions in Oak Creek are driven by the local group of political activists who have compromised the integrity of the board.

During the emergency school board meeting, parents were able to voice their concerns from a remote location. On at least one occasion, parents had to ask OCFJSD Board Member Sheryl Cerniglia to stop condescendingly shaking her head at parents who were in the middle of speaking in a desperate plea to keep the schools open.

As previously linked, YES for Oak Creek Schools has repeatedly been professionally affiliated with the district, while stating they have no affiliation. Since the publishing of that article, we now know a bit more about the private affiliations.

A source provided us with some recent posts made in a private Facebook group, a group that was recently formed by the founder of YES (and OCFJSD ad hoc committee member), Jenny von Helms. The four board members who voted against keeping the schools open are members of this group, which regularly censors and evicts people who don’t share their opinions. That, of course, is fine. It’s a private group. That is their right.

But it doesn’t do a favorable service for the optics of the school board who are entangled with this radical group in an effort to keep the schools closed. This is especially evident when one of the Board Members, Leah Schreiber Johnson, thanks the group for their “advocacy.”

(I have to wonder how the women who are in other places of decision-making feel about this, particularly those in food service and other school support services who may now again be laid off. According to this group, their fight is diminutive to that of elected board members with special interests).

There are other posts that convey a similar message, either directly or indirectly. The continuity in all of them is an effort to recognize the needs of a few over the needs of the community, more importantly, the students and families of Oak Creek.

Another post, made by Jenny von Helms, appears to state a grievance from a teacher. Because we cannot independently verify the message, and considering previously outlined mistruths by Mrs. Helms, it is hard for us to know if it is a legitimate claim. If it is, it demonstrates that the district has an even bigger communication issue with its staff. There are appropriate channels for staff to go through to report concerns, as opposed to requesting that an activist post them on social media to a group whose members include the four school board members who continually vote to keep kids out of school.

In our previous article, we mentioned that we had sought financial information to link YES and OCFJSD. We were told the district didn’t have a way to retrieve that information. For the time being, we remain concerned that YES is receiving taxpayer funds to effectively lobby for the closing of schools, a service the community is also paying for but not receiving – at least not to its fullest extent. Not even close.

Our teachers should feel essential to the community, just as police officers, fire fighters, or the store clerks and food/parcel delivery services they expect to be employed for their needs. And, we have no reason to believe that most teachers disagree with that assertion. Many do rightfully view themselves as essential. They should, then, better understand how counterproductive these radical activists groups are to their image as perceived by the community. We don’t want conflict with our teachers. We want the politics and self interests out of our school board.

Two things are for certain as we stand today. There is an overtly comprised school board in OCFJSD, and the members who are compromised seem more inclined to fail the education of our youth than to help them. A goal which should be at the apex of their concerns and intentions.

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