Less than two weeks after returning to the classroom in early December, Jeanne Holmes-Hoffman, a 20-year veteran of the Kenosha Unified School District, believes she contracted COVID-19 in the classroom and passed it on to both her husband and her mother.
Holmes-Hoffman’s husband Jim spent 19 days in the hospital before dying Jan. 3 and her mother, who was living with the couple, suffered a coronavirus-related stroke and was hospitalized.
“Nothing can bring Jim Hoffman back. The void caused by missing his presence is felt every moment by me and my family,” Holmes-Hoffman said in a statement read to the Kenosha Unified School Board on Jan. 6. “This did not need to happen to my husband.”
The Kenosha school district is grappling with how to balance the safety of its staff and their families with the fears of parents that their children will fall behind if classes are online. Holmes-Hoffman is one of two staff members who say they got coronavirus in the classroom and passed the virus on to their spouses who died from it.
The second staffer has not been identified.
The school board voted to go virtual from Nov. 30 to Jan. 8, however, because Holmes-Hoffman works with special education students, which required in-person education, she returned to the classroom in December.
As of Jan. 11, Kenosha elementary and middle schools have an in-person learning option. Kenosha Unified high schools are scheduled to have an in-person option starting Monday.
Holmes-Hoffman said she was assigned three students for in-person learning.
“I was also told that any coworker exhibiting symptoms would be sent home in an abundance of caution,” Holmes-Hoffman’s statement read. “This also failed to happen. Within a week and half of returning to the building and coming in close contact with an infected individual, I tested positive for the virus, then unwittingly passed it to my family.”
KEA vs. KUSD
The Kenosha Education Association has been pushing the school district to move from a hybrid school model to virtual learning. In November the KEA, the teachers union, filed a class-action grievance against the district over its pandemic policies.
Tanya Kitts-Lewinski, president of the local union, said Kenosha Unified is one of the few urban districts that have some level of in-person learning and incidents like what happened to Holmes-Hoffman could happen again.
“Most educators have not had a choice,” Kitts-Lewinski said. “We’ve had to teach from buildings and many educators do have underlining health situations or someone in their home who’s medically fragile which has obviously put folks at risk causing some of these tragedies.”
In a statement, Tanya Ruder, chief of communications for KUSD, said the district requires anyone with coronavirus symptoms or a positive test to stay home.
“The district used to await a positive test confirmation from the health department prior to quarantining close contacts, but we changed our practice in mid-November to require staff and/or students who were close contacts to a COVID-positive individual to quarantine upon the report of a positive case,” she said in the statement. “This change to our quarantine practice has allowed us to better protect our staff and students as cases spiked, which was also causing delays in response time from the health department. We intend to continue with this practice going forward.”
Kenosha Unified and members of the KEA met Wednesday to discuss quarantine practices, physical distancing and masks, extended paid coronavirus leave, testing and vaccinations.
“Overall, it was a positive meeting with great information shared on both sides,” Ruder said in an email. “We will be reviewing ideas and concerns raised and will follow up with union leadership once that has been completed.”
Kitts-Lewinski said they plan to continue to push the district toward safer practices.
“Failure to implement safety protocols amid a pandemic can have deadly results. We have seen that. Anything less than strict adherence to safety measures is unacceptable,” Kitts-Lewinski said. “This is the reason we have been so adamant about offering educators the option to teach remotely. We are hopeful that at the very least, our district will reinstate a sick bank so that employees can donate their own earned sick benefits to colleagues like Jeanne, who are forced to take unpaid leave. After 20 years of service to KUSD, Jeanne deserves that at the very least.”
Some parents push for in-person learning
At the Jan. 6 school board meeting several parents pushed for in-person learning, saying that students are falling behind in class, getting distracted and feeling frustrated.
Candice Ohm said her children often have issues logging on and she is regularly making sure they are engaged in their virtual classroom.
“You don’t understand the daily task of forcing the kids to sit down and learn,” Ohm said. “My kids are no longer interested in school. They think it’s a waste of time. They’re falling behind. They’re failing.”
Ohm said she requested that her children be held back a year but that request was denied by the district.
“We parents are not qualified to be a teacher,” Ohm said. “We did not go to school for this. These teachers did and they get paid for it, we do not.”
Ohm added teachers need to “stop being so greedy.”
Kitts-Lewinski said she has felt the divide and anger in the Kenosha community.
“Our union has been pretty demonized,” she said. “I don’t know that they’re connecting that all of the members of our union are educators. We’re all the very people entrusted to care for the children.”
Kitts-Lewinski said she understands some parents are having trouble helping their children while also working, but the “frustration is misplaced.”
“The loudest voices seem to be parents who feel that even talking about COVID is fear-mongering and that the idea that our classrooms are unsafe is false,” Kitts-Lewinski said. “Our community is hurting. I just think the loudest voices don’t necessarily represent the students’ population and families that we serve either. We’re a district that serves a majority population of students of color. Their families are highly impacted by COVID, and we have to consider that.”