MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Republicans decided Wednesday to shift federal aid to schools that offer in-person instruction, saying science supports putting kids back in class and it’s time to reopen after a year of struggling through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Republican lawmakers have grown impatient with schools that have chosen to remain virtual as the pandemic drags on. They argue their constituents need their children in school so they can go to work and point to recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and comments from Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government’s top infectious disease expert, and President Joe Biden that children need to be in school.
They’ve also cited Wisconsin’s declining COVID-19 case rate and school boards aren’t listening to demands to reopen.
The state Department of Public Instruction had planned to distribute $65 million in federal pandemic aid across 172 districts and two charter schools to offset aid going to poorer districts. But the Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee stepped in and voted to increase the aid amount to $65.5 million and divvy it out based on the number of hours of in-person instruction offered. Districts that offer more hours will receive more dollars.
“The right thing is getting kids back in school,” Sen. Duey Stroebel, a Saukville Republican, said before the vote. “COVID numbers are cratering. If not now, when?”
Committee Democrats cried foul, saying the move punishes districts that want to remain virtual and forces them to compete with districts that go in-person for money.
“It is absolutely the wrong decision for this body to take away or punish local decision-making,” Rep. Evan Goyke of Milwaukee, who attended the committee meeting virtually, shouted into his computer screen. “If you don’t like the decision, run for school board. Don’t micro-manage their decisions from Madison.”
Republicans rejected the notion they were punishing anyone, saying they were simply providing an incentive to return to in-person learning.
“I get the spin. I get the politics. That’s what we do here,” said Republican Rep. Mark Born, a committee co-chair. “(But) this is for the folks who are doing the right thing to educate our kids in the classroom.”
Goyke continued to argue, accusing Republicans of playing up scientific recommendations that children should be in school while working to repeal mask mandates.
“You can’t cherry-pick which CDC guidelines you want to adhere to,” Goyke charged.
Republican lawmakers killed Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ statewide mask requirement last week, only to see Evers reissue it hours later. The state Supreme Court is currently weighing whether the mandate is legal.
Republicans insisted the state must return to in-person instruction.
“Being out of school is not mentally healthy and academically (kids) are going backwards,” Sen. Mary Felzkowski said. “We’re hearing very loudly from our constituency that children need to be in school.”