Deerfield students will start the school year virtually due to COVID-19, the school board has decided.

The Deerfield School Board voted Monday night July 27 to begin the 2020-21 school year virtually, rather than in-person or in a blended way, which were also options that were considered.

Administrators said they hope to transition gradually to in-person classes over the first quarter.

Superintendent Michelle Jensen said administrators had been waiting to make a decision about the fall until Public Health Madison & Dane County released its guidance on whether schools should reopen in-person, and what it would take to close them again after they reopen.

But Jensen said Monday night it seemed unlikely that guidance would come down before Aug. 3, the date that the board wanted to make a decision by.

“I don’t think it’s going to change that much after Aug. 3,” Jensen said. “And I feel like people need an answer. We know that families want to know what is going to be the look for fall.”

Board members and administrators expressed concern about waiting much longer, saying families needed to be able to make childcare and work plans. And if public health guidance wasn’t expected before Aug. 3, board member Lisa Sigurslid said, there didn’t seem to be a reason to put a vote off any longer.

“The sooner we make a decision, the sooner we can start working on a plan,” Board member Nathan Brown agreed.

Board president Jim Haak pointed out that the board could always vote to adjust their plans later, if new public health metrics are released and in-person instruction becomes more possible.

While administrators envision returning to in-person classes as soon as possible, Jensen said they didn’t want to reopen too quickly and risk the safety of students and staff. She said administrators also didn’t want to risk making a decision that might be reversed by Public Health Madison & Dane County in the coming weeks, as more guidance comes down. Jensen called that possibility “very concerning.”

“I would rather be on the conservative side,” she said.

Jensen also said she thought that transitioning from virtual learning to in-person learning might be easier for staff and families than opening buildings and then potentially being forced back into virtual learning if the pandemic worsens, with little notice for families to make arrangements and teachers to switch their instruction styles.

Jensen said she felt that virtual learning was “the model we have to start with, but how do we take care of the highest needs from the spring?”

“It’s a tough decison, I don’t have any easy answers,” she added.

One parent of a Deerfield student made a public comment at the meeting, asking the board to consider offering “face-to-face as much as possible.”

“I’m counting on every single one of us to keep our children first,” the parent said.

Jensen thanked the parent for her comments.

“Everybody wants to do the best thing for kids, because this is difficult for them,” Jensen said. “There is nothing easy about either choice. There is only doing the best we can.”

Board member Autumn Knudtson asked whether other local school districts had made decisions yet. Jensen said that the Madison, Sun Prairie, Marshall, Middleton-Cross Plains and Stoughton school districts had all decided to go virtual. Jensen said she hadn’t heard of any local districts choosing to return in-person.

Jensen noted that a gradual, phased-in approach to resuming in-person learning is a new part of Deerfield’s plan. The idea came from teleconference meetings with county health officials and other districts last week, Jensen said.

In a phased-in approach the district would gradually transition groups of students from virtual learning to in-person, using two-week periods to gauge safety.

Fourteen days “gives you a good idea of how a group of people has reacted to a change,” Jensen said.

Jensen said the phased-in approach could begin after Public Health Madison & Dane County releases its latest guidelines.

“We’ve already started working on those scenarios,” of phasing back to in-person as early as mid-September, Jensen said.

Board member Sandy Fischer asked about the opportunity to bring students back to school in-person in small groups during virtual learning, for activities like gym classes, meetings with teachers or science labs.

Jensen responded that “whatever it’s going to be, it’s going to be at 6 feet apart.”

Board members talked about the importance of connecting with families about what they might need from the school district to make virtual learning work.

Knudtson asked how administrators planned to get in touch with families. She said she thought it was important to ask parents what factors might impact their success with virtual learning.

Jensen said that Deerfield opted not to send out a survey early in the board’s decision-making process, because she had heard from other districts that people’s opinions about instruction models were rapidly changing throughout the summer. She also wanted to avoid making people feel like the district wasn’t listening to their opinions if they were sought in a survey, but the district then went in a different direction.

While asking for their preferences on instruction models may not be the most efficient course, Knudtson said, finding out whether families have access to internet and devices, need childcare or would be interested in small-group, in-person activities, could be valuable.

Knudtson thought that families might need different supports than they did in the spring, having already been through the experience of virtual learning. Families like hers that didn’t request technology from the district in the spring might do so this fall, she said.

Administrators are expecting a higher need for Wi-Fi hotspots and devices from the schools, Jensen said.

Jensen added that it will be an expectation that students log on and report to virtual classes at scheduled times, making the need for reliable internet more important.

“Everybody should expect to see much more live or face-to-face meetings this time around,” Jensen said.

One major difference from virtual learning last spring, Jensen said, will be that teachers will have access to their classrooms, unlike when schools were closed completely due to statewide health orders in March.

Jensen said she hopes teachers will be able to work virtually out of their classrooms, with access to materials and tools.

Once school buildings do re-open, Deerfield is also planning on offering virtual classes for students and families that don’t feel comfortable returning.

With an in-person or hybrid model, Jensen said that public health officials were concerned about teachers going in and out of classrooms, deciding who would have to quarantine if someone tests positive for COVID-19, and students and staff potentially having to move in and out of quarantine multiple times.

“Coming back in here is going to look very, very different,” Jensen said. “It’s not going to look like what they’re used to or what they thought it was going to look like.”

Jensen added that she had concerns about being short-staffed if a whole group of teachers needed to self-isolate, as well as about how easily the virus is transmitted among different age groups and the square-footage of each school for social distancing purposes.

“There is not good data when a whole group of people come back together again in this kind of setting,” Jensen said.

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