Despite closures, schools continue to keep communities connected

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As COVID-19 continues to change the lives of those across Madison, the importance of local school systems has risen through the ways they have strived to support local families.

“It has completely changed the lives of every person I know.” Michele Ritt, a Special Needs teacher with the Madison Metropolitan School District who was recently re-elected as County Supervisor for Dane County’s 18th District, said.

Ritt and her neighbors, mostly teachers, felt the shift last month.

“There were inklings of the change. People were a little more physically socially distant from each other.” Ritt said. “The big marker that I felt was when the Madison schools closed. That changed the game completely.” 

On March 13, Governor Tony Evers ordered all public and private schools in Wisconsin to close on the 18th. At that time, there were 19 confirmed cases in Wisconsin. That number has since risen to more than 5,000

What that meant for Madison was a school district of 27,000 students and their families being disconnected from the school system that shapes so much of their lives. 

“I would say one of the number one priorities that I was seeing and hearing and feeling was, ‘how are we going to feed our kids?’" Ritt said. "And it just started happening. Right away. It was - It was amazing to see.” 

For the past few weeks, free meals have been delivered to individuals at neighborhood food sites offering breakfast and lunch options every weekday. As a result of recent increases in social distancing practices, the MMSD announced that it would be shifting to a delivery service in coordination with United Postal Service. 

“School staff and [Parent Teacher Organizations] and community members have come together to try to fill in all of the other gaps.” Ritt said. “A lot of individual schools have had special fundraisers to provide more support for our most vulnerable families that can help you to pay for rent, to provide additional grocery supplies for the families; diapers, formula, things like that. There is a really strong grassroots support of neighbor to neighbor.

“I see our public schools being the cornerstone of a whole lot of those activities. I think that a lot of eyes are being opened to the true role that schools play in our community. And I guess my hope is that we can find ways to more strongly support our schools.”

Voting opinions emboldened by COVID-19

Before COVID-19 upended lives in Madison, Ritt said the factors that mattered to her most when it came to the election were stabilizing families, maintaining services for vulnerable community members, and the environment. As the pandemic continues to challenge communities across the state, the value she places in each of these factors has only been strengthened .

“I think a whole lot of it comes down to stabilizing families, which is extremely difficult in the face of a pandemic.” Ritt said. “We need to make sure that people have homes … we need to make sure that they have access to the things they need: health care, food, housing.”

Governor Tony Evers suspended evictions and foreclosures during the pandemic so that people have a guaranteed place of residence. 

“We have, of course, a population of people who are homeless in our community. And the county is doing a whole lot of work to make sure that the people who are homeless are set up in hotels for different areas.”

The Warner Park Community Center is being used as a shelter for homeless men amidst the coronavirus epidemic . This is a marked shift from the ‘barely humane’ conditions in shelters that homeless men had access to before the widespread containment action began. 

“I know that Warner Park Community Center, which is on the north side, is transitioning into a place for the homeless shelter for people to be able to be socially distant within the shelter system. The downtown ones are way too crowded and don't follow the health mandate right now.”

Regarding the environment, Ritt maintains that protecting clean air and water are necessities but she has found the most direct benefit in the maintenance of a healthy park system. 

“Clean air and clean water are absolutely still priority issues. And I think our park system, you know, our natural resources are providing us for a lot of unexpected value through this pandemic.” 

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