With rising local COVID-19 case counts, the Cambridge School Board is delaying the return of middle and high school students to in-person classes.

The school board voted on Sept. 25 to begin allowing students in grades three, four and five to return to Cambridge Elementary School school in-person on Sept. 28.

Grades six, nine and 10 will follow on Oct. 12, with grades seven, eight, 11 and 12 returning Oct. 19.

Grades pre-k through 2 have been able to learn in-person since since Sept. 1, and some special needs students also recently returned to school buildings.

The school district’s most recent plan was to phase in the return of remaining students to school buildings from late September through the first week of October.

All students will have the option to continue virtually for the rest of the 2020-21 school year, superintendent Bernie Nikolay said.

The board also weighed bringing students back sooner than Sept. 28 and considered keeping students virtual until the end of the first quarter in early November.

Nikolay said the idea to bring grades 3-5 back in-person on Sept. 28 reflects the district’s “level of confidence” in the success of in-person learning at Cambridge Elementary School.

And, Nikolay added, the plan to spread out students’ return came in response to higher COVID-19 case numbers in Dane and Jefferson Counties recently.

Administrators said they’re seeing schools that have already returned in-person have to close down due to positive cases.

The board approved the plan 6-1, with board member Grace Leonard dissenting.

Leonard said she was in favor of waiting until early November, or the end of first quarter at the middle and high schools, to start transitioning back in-person.

“I feel a prudent approach right now...is to reset our timeline,” Leonard said.

Leonard said she felt waiting until the quarter’s end would give students more continuity, instead of changing the learning model while students are still adjusting to virtual learning.

Board members and administrators both discussed the pacing of all possible transitions back to in-person – such as is an early October return to soon or not soon enough?

Board member Mike Huffman called an early October return “a more-slow approach,” and ”gradually gaining more experience.” He also said he’d prefer to bring sixth-graders back earlier, so the middle school doesn’t stay vacant.

“Going to in-person learning doesn’t mean we’re turning a blind eye to responsibility to control the pandemic,” Huffman said.

Board vice president Jim Womble expressed concern over rising case numbers in both Jefferson and Dane Counties, and said he wanted to wait until early October or early November to return.

Several board members asked about how teachers felt about returning to in-person learning.

Administrators said the idea to bring students back early October was hatched that afternoon, and so they hadn’t surveyed teachers yet. They’re hearing a wide variety of opinions, they said, with “pockets of anxiety” in every building and some teachers ready to come back.

Some teachers will stay virtual even after students return in-person, Nikolay said, starting with one virtual teacher in each grade.

Cambridge High School principal Keith Schneider said teachers in his building are feeling less anxiety now than they were two weeks ago, when the district was considering bringing all students grades 3-12 back to the high school.

CES Principal Chris Holt and Nikolay middle principal Krista Jones added that younger students are easier to keep in cohorts — or small student groups — than middle and high school students, because older students switch classes with different classmates more often.

Board president Tracy Smithback-Travis asked how ready school staff would be right now to make the shift back to in-person, and whether it would benefit them to delay.

Holt said that teachers would be switching back to in-person teaching, which is “their bread and butter.”

CES physical education teacher Anneke Legge spoke during the public comment section of the meeting, saying in-person learning with grades kindergarten, first and second are going well at CES. She expressed concern over returning grades three, four and five to school too fast, and risk forcing the youngest students, who wouldn’t fare well with virtual learning, out of the classrooms due to positive cases.

A dozen community members, parents and teachers spoke during the conversation, both for and against returning in late September and early October.

The discussion on when to transition students back in-person lasted about three hours.

Community members brought up questions about shortening the virtual learning day to combat fatigue, reconsidering hybrid models, what are considered “manageable numbers” of COVID-19 cases in classrooms, giving families choices and the preferences of teachers.

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