The Cambridge School Board has unanimously approved a plan to bring elementary students back to school in-person this fall, while middle and high school students begin the year virtually.

The plan was recommended to the board by school district administrators.

It has early childhood through fifth-grade students starting classes in-person at the beginning of September. Sixth and ninth-grade students will return in-person on September 21, followed by remaining grades gradually returning in-person every week after that. Older students will attend virtual classes on school-issued Chromebooks.

The board discussed at length how to decide, as those dates get closer, whether it's safe to bring older students back into buildings.

“It does beg the question of what will we have to know then, that we don’t know today, that’s going to make the decision for us?” board member Sean Marren said.

Younger students who return in-person at the start of the year will be spread out between the Cambridge Elementary School and Nikolay Middle School buildings, to increase social distancing. Children in early childhood, kindergarten, first, second and third-grade will attend the elementary school. Fourth and fifth-graders will initially go to the middle school building, and will return to the elementary school building as older student come back in-person.

There will be an all-virtual option for families of any grade level who don't want their children to return to a school building. It will be available for the entire school year, administrators said.

Masks will be required for all students and staff at school buildings, along with social distancing, physical barriers and sanitation plans.

Cambridge High School principal and district curriculum director Keith Schneider said virtual learning this fall will look different than it did in the spring. The district is shopping for virtual curriculum, and increasing professional development for teachers, Schneider said.

“We gave (teachers) two days of training,” before shifting to virtual learning in the spring, Schneider said. “To be a solid virtual program, it takes time. We’re going to dedicate some staff and some resources and some training,” for fall virtual instruction, he said.

The board voted to approve the plan after about an hour of listening to comments from parents, district staff, students and community members in a meeting that was a hybrid of video conference and in-person. More than 40 people attended the meeting in-person at Cambridge High School, and about 130 people joined in via video conference. 

“These are difficult times we, as a country, are going through. It's no different here in Cambridge,” Superintendent Bernie Nikolay told those assembled. “I will say right up front, we don’t have all of the answers. We have some of them, but we are dedicated to getting there by the time school starts.”

Most public comments shared during the meeting supported the plan to return to classes in-person, and advocated for restarting athletic and co-curricular activities.

“If we believe... that nobody is going to be positive in these schools, you’re crazy,” parent and softball coach Dean Freeland said. “Let’s not over panic about this. The sooner we get our kids back, the better the whole community is.”

“We’re privileged in this community that were not too terribly hard hit,” said parent Steven Gill. However, “if that changes, this plan also needs to change. We’re banking on the experiment working. It’s not being careful, it’s just being respectful” of the virus, Gill said.

Audience members asked a range of questions, including how virtual learning will look different than it did in the spring, how school staff will be increasing sanitation, what virtual learning will look like for middle and high school students, why whole classrooms might have to quarantine, how technology will be made available to students and how students will receive special education services.

“I appreciate the passionate engagement. I appreciate the research and all the different perspectives,” said school board member Courtney Reed Jenkins. “(I’m) deeply appreciative of the time and the research...that went into the proposal.”

Nikolay listed some potential challenges with the plan, like staffing shortages, higher risk of COVID-19 transmission, potential closures caused by COVID-19 cases in the schools and logistical challenges with protective gear and student traffic.

“We have some people in the community who are resistant to safety measures, that will work against us,” Nikolay said.

Nikolay said teachers will be divided into in-person and virtual teams, some instructing students online and some teaching students gathered at school buildings. They will all be expected to work from school buildings, even if teaching virtual classes.

Nikolay said there was some concern expressed by staff about returning in-person, but said 95 percent of staff responded on a July 14 survey that they would return “no matter what model was selected."

Nikolay said teachers can elect to teach virtual classes, instead of in-person. He also said teachers have language in their contracts allowing for sabbaticals if needed.

“I sense that there is more uncertainty and nervousness about returning to school from our staff,” Nikolay acknowledged.

“We can all agree that the teachers are the heart of our school. (I would) encourage the administrators to consider the concerns of our teachers that have been shared tonight. We’re asking a lot from them," Board member Grace Leonard said, adding that "I think we’re heading in the right direction with this plan."

Nikolay acknowledged that the overall plan may seem “aggressive” in its speed of getting students back in-person.

But “we think it's the best plan out there, to be honest. We think it puts us in a good situation to get our most vulnerable kids back to school,” Nikolay said. “We think this is the most prudent way, all things considered.”

While learning virtually, Nikolay said the middle and high schools will return to pre-COVID-19 grading scales, instead of the pass/fail grading system used this spring. And students will be expected to do more synchronous learning while virtual learning, following a schedule and reporting for classes at selected times along with their classmates.

In the end, every board member expressed support for the administration's plan, and the vote to move forward with it was unanimous.

“I believe (COVID-19) is very serious, I don’t want it in our community,” board member Mike Huffman said. However, “to me it’s at a level in our community right now where I think we could have five day in-person learning in our schools,” he said.

“I am very proud of our district for what they have put together,” board president Tracy Smithback-Travis said. It “allows people to make a choice for what they feel is best for them,” and “finds reason in an unreasonable time,” she said.

“I too support the plan. I think it's well thought out,” board member Julie West said.

Athletics

Many audience members at the meeting were advocating for returning to in-person sports, following a modified plan from the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association.

Nikolay said that a majority of schools in Dane County have suspended fall play due gathering size limits issued by Public Health Madison & Dane County.

“If we think that it's safe enough that we’re sending our kids back to school...I think we should go ahead and follow the Jefferson County guidelines on that,” Nikolay said.

The board approved following the WIAA’s return to play guidelines.

Coaches, parents and students all spoke in support of returning to play and said limited sports training over the summer went well. They said it benefited student mental health, rewarded them for their hard work and kept them busy.

In-person graduation

Several parents expressed discontent that the school district wasn’t planning to hold an in-person graduation ceremony for class of 2020 graduates.

The school board had discussed on July 20 whether to hold a public in-person ceremony on the high school football field, or to allow students to visit the high school on a smaller scale, as a photo opportunity, observing gathering size limits from Public Health Madison & Dane County.

Several parents questioned why administrators weren’t opting to follow Jefferson County public health guidelines, which they said are less strict than Dane County requirements. The school district is physically split by the Dane-Jefferson County line. The high school building is located in Jefferson County, while Nikolay Middle School and Cambridge Elementary School are in Dane County.

Kim Meitner, a parent of a 2020 graduate, asked the board to follow Jefferson County guidelines, and to hold a public in-person graduation on Aug. 9, “especially if we can have board meetings like this,” with over 40 people in attendance, she said.

“I really don’t see how 11 more people shouldn’t be allowed to have a graduation,” CHS graduate Ben Incha added.

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