Many students returned to their classes at DeForest Area elementary schools on Monday, the first step of an experiment in returning kids to in-person classes after months away due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The DeForest Area School Board voted on Jan. 11 to resume in-person classes in a complicated plan meant to offer a compromise for families with strong and opposing feelings on the subject, as well as lessening the potential risks as kids arrive and start spending full days with each other and their teachers.
On Monday, Jan. 25, third and fourth graders came back to school for in-person classes, but the option remains for students to continue virtual classes at home. Fifth graders were scheduled to begin the following day, but that was postponed when classes were cancelled due to a snowstorm that morning.
Parents have also been given the option for their children to continue virtual classroom learning from home if they did not feel comfortable with the potential risk of in-person classes.
For children who returned to school, it is still far from school being “back to normal.” Students are split into the “purple group” and the “gold group,” based on last names A-L and M-Z, each group attends two days of in-person classes (Monday and Tuesday or Thursday and Friday) and three days of virtual classes. While in the school building, students are expected to wear face masks, cooperate with self-monitoring and self-reporting of symptoms and COVID-19 risks, abide by social distancing and practice good hygiene. The school district reserves the right to return students to full-time virtual learning at home if they or their family fail to meet expectations of COVID-19 prevention.
The schools themselves have been prepared for COVID-19 prevention with upgraded air circulation, available personal protection equipment, safety guidelines for staff, and intense cleaning and disinfecting of surfaces that have frequent personal contact through the day, like doorknobs and bathroom installations. The difference in the schools is noticeable right away, according to Director of Administrative Services Peter Wilson.
“They smell cleaner and they look cleaner than they’ve ever been,” said Wilson.
If the first wave of returning students is successful, the plan is to continue with grades 6, 7, and 9, along with New Reflections Alternative School returning on February 8, then grades 8, 10, 11 and 12 on February 22.
“Before we bring in several hundred kids, we want to be sure,” said District Superintendent Eric Runez.
DeForest Area School District staff presented the board with updates on almost all aspects of education, administration and logistics, with each affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and now with a new system with a distant goal of returning to normality. Prior to the adoption of the hybrid model, the district solicited input from the community with no shortage of responses.
The interpretation of public input itself also required calculating the impact of the coronavirus: the majority of opinions aired at the board meeting represented parents pushing for schools to open their doors again. However, those who are more concerned about the risks of COVID-19 are more likely to avoid crowded enclosed environments such as a public forum. In part because of this, the pleas to keep the schools closed were more strongly represented in voice messages and emails.
When the school district surveyed households of their preferences, the results showed roughly two-thirds of respondents opting for a return to in-person classes. Also apparent in survey results was that when broken down demographically, families of “students of color” were more likely to support continued virtual study. Across the United States Black and Brown communities have disproportionately suffered from COVID-19 with higher rates of infection and higher rates of fatality among those infected.
The DeForest Area School District’s hybrid program amounts to what Runez described as “two separate student populations.” While this may help ease the pressure that has built through quarantine, there are also hopes that the introduction of the COVID-19 vaccine may help ensure safety of teachers and other staff.
Runez explained that while the initial distribution of vaccines is appreciated, it has only “chipped away” at the problem and at the current rate, would be wholly inadequate. Part of the issue he said, is a lack of guidance and organization at the state or federal levels.
A potential complication is that staff are strained to their limit with an “all hands on deck” approach and also on high alert for symptoms of infection. The introduction of a vaccine, which frequently causes a brief onset of comparatively mild symptoms, could disrupt the delicate machinery of this system. Perhaps ideally, Runez suggested, if an arrangement could be made with a health care system, a solution could be to arrange for school to be cancelled for a full day or two so staff could be vaccinated all at once, then return to work.
Even if that were the case, there were no illusions about a magic bullet or a perfect policy available that would return the school to life as it was in 2019.
“The last eleven months it just feels like were were always planning for the next thing,” said Runez, “and that doesn’t stop with this plan.”