Survey results indicate that 69 percent of families in the DeForest Area School District intend to send their kids to school if in-person instruction is allowed.

The findings were included in a “Planning for 2020-21” report to the school board Monday, July 13, which also touched on other issues, including transportation and food service, related to COVID-19 and reopening the schools.

“These are not recommendations,” cautioned Superintendent Eric Runez, during the presentation. “This is just what we’ve learned so far.”

Runez said the district will have more details on reopening school in the fall in a couple of weeks, as the school board is slated to meet again July 27 to go over recommendations.

The survey had a 71 percent response rate, with 2,300 emails – one to each family – sent out for it. The district received 1,622 completed responses, representing 2,483 incoming K-12 students.

“The responses were very helpful to our learning teams,” said Debbie Brewster, the district’s coordinator of school and community relations.

Those teams are focusing on issues related to school operations, district culture, and teaching and learning.

One of the questions that was asked was, “If public health officials allow in-person instruction, would you feel comfortable having your student return to school this fall?”

Only 10 percent said they would not at all feel comfortable, with 22 percent saying they would be somewhat comfortable, 38 percent revealing they’d be comfortable with concerns and 31 percent noting they would be comfortable with minimal or no concerns.

“We want to provide as much in-person learning as possible,” said Runez. “The majority of our kids learn better when interacting with other students and teachers.”

In response to a question about what factors would help them feel more comfortable, 17 percent of respondents identified having classrooms and other gathering spaces cleaned and making sanitizing supplies, including hand sanitizers, available. Another 13 percent wanted mandatory self-symptom checks of employees, with 12 percent calling for requiring mandatory self-symptom checks required for students. In addition, 10 percent favored maintaining social distancing protocols and another 10 percent wanting staff to wear facial coverings or shields. A total of 8 percent of respondents wanted facial coverings for students, while 2 percent said there is nothing that will make them feel safe.

While 69 percent said they intend to send their children to school if in-person instruction is allowed, 28 percent said they were uncertain and 3 percent said they wouldn’t.

When asked if they planned on utilizing the district’s full virtual learning option, 28 percent said yes, 16 percent said no and 56 percent indicated they were uncertain.

Survey participants were also asked about how easy or difficult it would be if the district is required to use a full virtual learning or a hybrid model of in-person and virtual learning.

“We’re zeroing in on what our hybrid model will look like,” said Runez. A typical weekly schedule could include a mix of in-person days and virtual learning days.

A total of 60 percent of 2,319 families said they would use the district’s food service program at school, while 40 percent said no. Also, there were 1,749 responses to a question asking about transportation, with 735 saying they needed to use district bus transportation and 1,014 noting they will transport their children to and from school. In all, 76 percent of the respondents were eligible for bus transportation.

Brewster said data about how many families intended to send their students back to school for in-person learning and how many needed to use district transportation was key for planning purposes.

“That’s a huge hurdle to opening school,” said Runez.

Runez noted that social distancing restrictions for buses might lead to reduced capacity for ridership. The more parents who transport their children to school, the less students who will need to ride buses. Routing challenges are also expected, due to limited buses and staff, plus schedule impacts. Sanitizing and seat assignments are also being discussed, as is the idea of asking parents to pre-screen their children for the coronavirus at home before they get on buses.

Brewster also said that survey data regarding food service is needed as food service personnel will be planning what to order. Limited seating capacity in common spaces is also a concern, as district officials consider transportable meals and having lunch in classrooms.

Planning safe and secure ways to transport, feed and circulate students and staff in buildings to minimize risks related to COVID-19 is the function of the Operations team. Making sure there is enough personal protection equipment (PPE) on hand, including masks and face shields for staff, is one of the group’s tasks. Operations is also talking about creating a self-isolation room in each of the district’s buildings, as well as screening and cleaning measures.

The virtual learning piece of the report is also crucial in determining how to reopen the schools. Kim Bannigan, learning information systems coordinator, said the district’s 1:1 computing model is expected to now include grades 3-4, along with the 5-12 service currently being provided.

That means students in grades 3-4 would also get computing devices dedicated to them that they could take home. Students in those grades may need to practice bringing them home and then bringing them back to school, said Bannigan.

Bannigan also said there will be an increased emphasis on digital citizenship.

School officials explained they wanted to be able to make a seamless shift from in-person instruction to full virtual learning should there be a need for that.

Runez said those who choose the full virtual learning option will be asked to commit to doing so for a semester.

With regard to athletics, coaches are making sure athletes are spaced apart when working out and not using the same equipment. Pre-screening is also being done.

“We don’t know what the final restrictions are going to be from Dane County,” said Runez. “There is uncertainty about when or if athletics will take place. What I can say is there is a lot of conversation going on.”

As far as instruction inside schools is concerned, Runez talked about the statewide push for cohorts, which keeps students together in the same groups. Runez said the idea of contact tracing is one of the reasons for cohorts. For instance, if a student in a cohort tests positive for coronavirus, officials could determine how limited or unlimited the exposure was to other students.

Runez also talked about President Trump’s threat to rescind federal funding for schools that don’t reopen in the fall. Runez said school districts receive the majority of their funding from state and local sources.

“We don’t need the distraction,” said Runez. “The threat is that we would lose dollars, but it wouldn’t shut us down.”

Kathleen Davis-Phillips, director of business and auxiliary services, said that about 2 percent of the district’s funding comes from the federal government.

One of the biggest concerns regarding reopening the schools is having enough substitute teachers to fill in should a lot of staff come down with coronavirus.

“That’s one question that’s keeping a lot of people up at night,” said Nate Jaeger, the district’s director of human resources.

Jaeger said a lot of districts were struggling with having enough substitute teachers even before COVID-19.

The district is enhancing its nursing staff in response to COVID-19, as a nursing position will be added at the elementary level.

“Finding a solution or a way forward in this is not easy … I hope we can find a solution that makes more people happy than unhappy,” said School Board President Jan Berg.

Runez said school districts are waiting on guidance from Dane County Public Health Department before firming up recommendations for school reopening. Such mandates could affect issues such as classroom sizes and transportation.

“We’re getting close to the point where we’re going to have to make decisions,” said Runez, who also talked about the increased collaboration with other superintendents in the county and statewide during COVID-19.

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