A new plan for returning students to in-person learning in the DeForest Area School District was presented at a special school board meeting on Monday night.
The timeline for phasing in bringing kids back to school would start the week of Jan. 25, with third and fourth graders starting in a hybrid model of virtual and in-person learning. The last phase would take place Feb. 22.
Working out all the details has been challenging during this time of the COVID-19 pandemic. School officials are still trying to determine how to bring back students in grades 5-8 and 9-12.
“I’ll be the first to admit it has not been the easiest puzzle to put together,” said Superintendent Eric Runez.
Since the board was meeting to simply hear and discuss the update, no decision on the plan was made.
An update on the district’s Virtual Academy revealed that approximately 25% of families of students in grades K-4 decided to stay in virtual learning and that most stayed in the path they originally chose. The decisions were made at the trimester.
Families of students in grades 5-12 have been given until Jan. 6 to decide whether to place their kids in the Virtual Academy, which operates entirely as a virtual learning model. The numbers of those opting out of Virtual Academy could have an impact on staffing.
Some critics contend the district still isn’t moving fast enough to bring kids back to the classrooms.
DeForest went completely virtual at the beginning of the school year, deciding to do so in August. Soon after, Madison and Dane County Public Health determined schools in the county could provide in-person learning for students in grades K-2. DeForest brought back those students to its school facilities.
Jeff Miller, a member of the school board, has said for the last two board meetings that the process is moving too slow. Miller noted how around Thanksgiving, when COVID-19 cases were blowing up in Wisconsin, school officials were worried about a spike in student cases because families would be getting together to celebrate the holiday. It didn’t happen, said Miller.
Miller then said it appeared school officials were concerned about another spike following Christmas and New Year’s, and that they wanted a couple of weeks after the break to see if that would take place before phasing-in a return to school for more students.
Miller said he wanted to see that take place quicker.
Brian Coker, another member of the school board, said, “I’d like to see if we can open up fifth and sixth grades along with third and fourth, and accelerate the phasing-in.”
Another board member, Gail Lovick, added, “The phasing in doesn’t seem quick enough.”
A number of parents also spoke at the meeting, including DeForest Village Board Trustee Jason Kramar, who said it is time to reopen school facilities for in-person learning.
Others spoke about the physical and mental toll being away from school has had on their kids and advocated for bringing them back to in-person learning. Some talked about how their kids were falling behind those in other school districts around the state who have been allowed to physically return to school.
Sue Esser, also a member of the school board, countered by talking about some of the difficulties in bringing all kids back so soon, as did some school officials.
The special update presented on Monday was an extension of plans developed in April for the return of students, according to Runez.
Order #11 from Madison and Dane County Public Health (PHMDC), which school officials received just prior to the Dec. 14 board meeting, and emerging data regarding COVID-19 and schools has intensified efforts to begin phasing students back to school, according to Runez.
While giving an overview of the PHMDC updated school guidance policies, Runez noted that data and studies show younger children are less likely to transmit COVID-19 and that those under the age of 18, which account for 22% of the total population, make up only 2% of all cases in the U.S.
The report also said that children and adolescents often experience less complications with COVID-19.
At the same time, data and studies have also shown that comprehensive school mitigation strategies reduce the risk of transmission. That’s true even in communities with higher rates of transmission. Adherence to those mitigation efforts – in schools and in the community – can reduce risk to staff, as well.
As for the updated plan to reopen schools, third and fourth graders would be phased back in under a hybrid models, with in-person cohorts of two groups – those with last names starting with A-L going Monday and Tuesday and the M-Z group in class Thursday and Friday.
Students would remain in the same classroom from 7:40 a.m.-2:40 p.m. Asynchronous learning – defined as forms of learning, education and instruction that don’t take place at the same time or in the same place – and some Google meets would take place at home for kids.
Mask wearing would be mandatory, with some breaks and lunch being eaten in the classroom.
There would be 12-15 students in each room, with social distancing of 6 feet between students being practiced.
“For grades three and four, it will look like what we do for K-2,” said Director of Instruction Rebecca Toetz,
Those same measures would be implemented for students in grades 5-8 when they return.
Toetz also talked about the emphasis on social and emotional learning that will take place. Morning meetings will deal with that, with Student Services staff also being made available to help struggling students.
Looking at the plan for bringing back students in grades 5-8, they would arrive at school at 8:30 a.m. and depart at 1:30 a.m. They would study English language arts, science, math and social studies. When at home, those students would access lessons virtually. Targeted intervention would take place between 1:30-3:45 p.m.
The plan for bringing back students in grades 9-12 is similar; however, it’s also more complicated. One of the issues involves concurrent teaching, where there would be an adult instructor in a room teaching kids in-person and virtually at the same time.
High School Principal Machell Schwarz explained that would involve a lot of additional work for teachers. Schwarz also talked about other issues that need to be resolved before high schoolers return, including scheduling and how difficult it would be to cohort and do contact tracing in the event a student contracts COVID-19.
“There would be no time for staff without supervising kids in front of them,” said Schwarz.
Also, with instruction for high schoolers limited to a period between 8:20 a.m. and 1:45 p.m. under the plan, a number of courses with content that could be defined as “heavy duty,” according to Schwarz, must be tightened up.
School officials are looking at how other districts have reopened their schools to in-person learning. The possibility of half days is being looked at. Toetz said Poynette has days with a similar virtual/in-person model to that of DeForest’s.
“It’s not like we’re pulling this out of the blue,” said Toetz.
Staffing is a big concern, especially at the high school level, where instructors in such subjects as economics and physics who are certified to teach them could be hard to find. Runez also said the district will be looking at hiring more contact tracers and Nathan Jaeger, director of human resources, said an increase in nursing staff may be necessary.
Runez said the feedback he received at Monday’s meeting was helpful, especially in looking at such issues as the length of school days and movement around the high school, among others.
The school board will next meet Jan. 11, when it is expected to address the plan.
“This is intended to set the groundwork,” said Runez. “We haven’t had students in [some of the] buildings since March, and we’ll be taking this into account in establishing protocols and mitigation strategies in loosening some of the restrictions.”