MADISON — The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction today issued Education Forward, a plan for Wisconsin school districts to reopen school buildings in the fall amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The DPI said the goal was a "safe, efficient, and equitable," reopening of K-12 schools, which closed to in-person instruction in mid-March. 

The guidance lays out possible scenarios for all in-person learning, as well as for physically-distanced learning, which would mix at-home and at-school instruction, and all-virtual learning.

There are 421 school districts, 26 independent charter schools, and 792 private schools serving a school-age population of over 1 million students in Wisconsin, the plan says.

It suggests that it will be safe for the vast majority of students to attend classes at school buildings, but that virtual classes may still be needed for those with underlying health conditions.

Suggestions offered in the plan include having classes at school buildings four days a week, with deep cleaning of buildings happening on the fifth day.

It also suggests breaking students into groups that would attend in-school classes two days a week, such as on a Monday/Tuesday and Thursday/Friday rotation. Students would learn at home virtually on other days.

Schools could also rotate groups between one week at school, and the alternate week at home, the plan suggests. 

Another suggestion floated in the plan is bringing younger elementary and middle school students back full-time at the start of the fall term and having older high school students continue to work remotely. 

The guidelines are not a requirement but rather, a roadmap for school districts to follow and to adapt to their unique local situations, DPI officials said. 

“The next school year will be likely be different from the learning environment students and teachers have grown accustomed to,” State Superintendent Carolyn Stanford Taylor said in a release. “Education Forward is meant to provide information for educators and school officials as they make decisions regarding their school operations to keep all students and staff safe while learning.”

"As we look toward the fall, the safety and health of our students, educators, and families remains of the highest importance," Stanford Taylor additionally said in the introductory pages of the 80-page Education Forward document. 

The entire plan can be viewed on the DPI's website: https://dpi.wi.gov/sites/default/files/imce/sspw/pdf/Education_Forward_web.pdf.

It relies on a series of assumptions including that "a vaccine is not likely to be in broad use during the next 12-18 months," and that schools will have to adapt to that reality. It also assumes that future waves of infection are possible which could result in changes to school operations or closure of schools mid-way through 2020-21.

"There will need to be social distancing, new cleaning and disinfecting procedures, and changes to how educators deliver instruction. There will be students who are not able to return to school due to health concerns and students and staff who may be quarantined due to exposure," Stanford Taylor said. "This means every school district will need to plan for both school operations on campus and remote learning."

"The DPI will be using federal CARES Act dollars to support school districts around remote learning options," the release said. "Changes will need to be made as districts look at how they provide meals to students, transport students to and from school, move through their buildings, and gather to celebrate achievements."

Mental health support of children of all ages, and a focus on the "whole child," will be key, as children continue to deal with pandemic-induced feelings of fear, loss and isolation, the plan says. And, "while COVID-19 impacts us all, it has been shown to disproportionately impact black, native, and hispanic/latino communities," the plan says, and ensuring those children's experience is safe and equitable should be a special focus.

"This guidance is designed to be used in consultation with local and tribal health departments, and we encourage school districts to work with them closely to make the best decisions for their communities," the DPI said.

DPI specialists from content areas across the department developed Education Forward in close collaboration with officials from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services and other experts. The primary consideration of all involved was the health and safety of students and staff, the plan said. 

“COVID-19 remains highly contagious, and people in Wisconsin are still at risk," Wisconsin Department of Health Services Secretary-designee Andrea Palm said in the release. "We want to keep Wisconsin’s students and school staff as safe and healthy as possible."

The DPI called its guidance "a starting point as schools consider the decisions they need to make and the conversations they need to have with local health authorities and their communities."

"While Education Forward is aimed at supporting schools through reopening, this will be a fluid document," the release said. "It will be regularly updated in consultation with education stakeholders and the DHS to provide new information and address changing conditions to support school operations and the learning environment."

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