Back to school?

At its meeting Monday, July 27, the DeForest Area School Board voted unanimously to approve an administration recommendation to start the 2020-21 school year virtually due to safety concerns brought on by COVID-19.

The DeForest Area School District will start the 2020-21 school year virtually.

On Monday night, July 27, the school board voted unanimously to support the administration’s recommendation to begin school in a virtual instructional model.

Superintendent Eric Runez wanted to make clear that the administration will work to intentionally phase in in-person instruction.

“As soon as we can phase it in, we will,” said Runez.

The board also approved the administration’s reopening plan for 2020-21, which included provisions for in-person learning, virtual learning and a hybrid of both.

Runez explained that he understands that the move to start the year virtually is “not a great answer for families.” Runez said families should prepare for all three instructional models.

No timeline was offered as to when the district would implement in-person school or a hybrid of virtual and in-person instruction. That would depend on the guidance received from Dane County Public Health.

In laying out the reasoning for the administration’s recommendation to start with virtual learning, Runez cited Public Health Dane County and Madison’s concerns about reopening schools, as well as results from a staff survey conducted between July 22 and 27. The response rate was 82 percent.

Among certified staff, the largest group of employees in the district, 61 percent favored starting with virtual learning, while 17 percent opted for beginning with a hybrid of in-person and virtual learning, and 22 percent stated both options were reasonable to them.

Taking into account total staff, 52 percent wanted to start with virtual learning, while 46 percent said to either begin with a hybrid model or that both options were reasonable.

School Board Member Jeff Miller said, “This is not an easy decision. It’s one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever had to make on the board.”

Miller sympathized with parents who will have to figure out child care. Runez also said administration wrestled with the economic data and how it impacted families.

A 58-page presentation on reopening the schools was presented at the meeting on Monday. School Board Vice President Steve Tenpas said he was impressed by the “depth of the presentation,” adding that all of the information in it made his decision easier.

Runez said leadership teams had been collaborating with staff on how to reopen the school district since the last school year ended. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, instruction was implemented virtually for the spring term.

Staff survey

In addition to being asked about what options they favored, staff also responded to a question about returning to work, with 83 percent saying they are willing and able to go back to work in-person, as needed.

A total of 17 percent said they are unable or unwilling to return to work in-person and would like more information about eligible leave options.

Among certified staff, 79 percent said they were willing and able to go back to work in-person, with 21 percent responding they were unwilling or unable to do so.

Runez said that the top choice among staff, administration, families and students would be to open up the doors and have students physically return to school buildings for instruction. However, Runez also noted that the amount of staff who said they were unwilling or unable to go back to in-person work is significant.

Meanwhile, staff has also been combing through survey results to identify key concerns. Some had questions about the safety of in-person instruction, as well as the safety protocols the district is taking. Others wondered about flexibility and accommodations for individual or family circumstances.

Concerns were expressed about child care issues, specifically relating to family work schedules and children in other district who are undergoing virtual instruction.

There were questions about teaching and learning related to instruction and strategies, along with those targeting the virtual learning and hybrid models. Others had to do with substitutes, preparation time for teachers, sick leave and insurance, professional development and student discipline, among other things.

Overall plan

The overall plan was presented in three parts: teaching and learning; culture; and operations. In addition, the presentation included new survey data, with staff weighing on. Data gathered from public health agencies, feedback and input from surveys and focus groups, as well as research done by district work teams, has informed the reopening plan.

In going through the teaching and learning portion, Director of Instruction Rebecca Toetz said that one of the biggest takeaways from the spring’s virtual learning experiment was that both students and parents reported that students were mostly motivated by their teachers.

“It’s important to keep our teachers in front of kids as much as possible,” said Toetz.

Toetz went over the models for teaching and learning, which were split into two groups.

Group 1 was a virtual-only option that families could choose. They would have to commit to sticking with the virtual-only means of instruction for a full semester, as the students in K-6 who go this route will use DeForest Area School District curriculum and those in grades 7-12 will use a combination of Apex and Wisconsin eSchool curriculum. Both levels are staffed by district teachers, but some eSchool courses may be taught by teachers outside the district.

Group 2 encompasses three types of learning models, including the in-person option, where students and staff follow a schedule like they did before the pandemic.

Virtual is also a part of the Group 2 offerings, as students and teachers would attend class virtually. Toetz explained there would be a “reboot of virtual learning” in the district, with major improvements for what the plan calls “a robust virtual learning experience.” Templates and exemplars would be used for lesson planning, with consistent assessment and grading practices followed. Wednesdays would be virtual learning days for students, with teachers working with their professional learning communities to develop virtual learning instruction.

Toetz talked about instituting synchronous and asynchronous teaching and learning practices, with a synchronous environment engaging a group of students in learning at the same time.

Thirdly, a hybrid of in-person and virtual learning, with learning time in school and at home, is another option. This would involve students attending in-person for a shortened schedule, or where limitations are put on the number of students in buildings. Social distancing and other precautions would be followed. This instructional model envisions students having two days of in-person classes and three days of virtual learning per week. Students would be split into two groups, as determined by the first letter of their last names. There would be cohorts at all levels to keep students together in one group as much as possible to help with contact tracing should a student contract coronavirus.

Blended learning may be practiced in any of these three models, making it easier for students to transition between them should circumstances call for a change to another model. This approach follows a blended arc framework that starts with a beginning launch, possibly involving a group discussion of an assignment. The middle part sees students working collaboratively or independently, with teachers checking to determine how they’re doing. It would close with more group discussion.

Instruction would be based on Universal Design for Learning principals, which call for multiple means of engagement, representation and action and expression with students.

The framework for K-6 was designed to provide the ability to shift from fully “in” classrooms to fully virtual. There would be blended arcs for English Language Arts and social science, math and science and social sciences and so-called Encore classes, such as music.

The schedule for grades 7-8 would involve fewer courses per quarter, with students able to access Encore courses, like physical education, band, Spanish or Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) classes, depending on staffing. In a hybrid scenario, only half the students would be present in the school, and fewer classes would help with cohorts. There would also be fewer transitions and students would have lunch with an advisory staff member.

That would be the same for students in grades 9-12. At the high school level, block scheduling is being implemented, with three or four courses per quarter with semester material for nine weeks. Students will be able to access the comprehensive high school course listings, and days will be structured to ensure that internships can be carried out.

Technology

With regard to technology, grades 3-4 would be included in the district’s 1:1 computing model, meaning they would be provided devices they could take home with them. Those in grades 5-12 are already in the program.

Plans also call for moving devices from grades 3-12 to K-2, with the district looking to support families who need them.

The district also wants to provide additional tools for improved virtual learning, while working with the state Department of Public Instruction, CESA 2 and approved vendors to improve internet access.

Family survey

Along with the July 22-27 staff survey, another survey for families was also conducted during the same period, with 1,697 completed surveys turned in. That represents 2,895 students, with a response rate of 75 percent.

A total of 72 percent of respondents said they would opt for Group 2 instructional models for their kids, be it in-person, hybrid or virtual, with 28 percent wanting a virtual path only.

Asked how the school year should start, 60 percent favored going with a hybrid, with 22 percent saying that both hybrid and virtual models were reasonable. In all, 17 percent chose starting with virtual learning as the best choice.

Looking at school transportation, 1,483 respondents said their child was eligible for taking the school bus. A total of 541 said they would require transportation for their kids, while 939 indicated they will transport their children to school.

A wide range of questions and comments were gleaned from the results, touching on such issues as policies and safety procedures, public health guidelines, scheduling, support for the need for in-person instruction, transportation, the social and emotional needs of students, virtual learning, teaching rigor and assessments and special education.

Some expressed a desire for the district to be fully open, with students and teachers going back to school full-time. Others wanted to know the district’s final plan and decision before choosing.

Operations

Ensuring the safety of students and staff returning physically to school was the top priority for the Operations work group.

To maintain healthy buildings, face coverings will be required of staff and students, with mandates for self-monitoring and reporting for COVID-19 symptoms in place. Physical distancing practices will be implemented, along with prevention and hygiene policies, training and communication.

There will be enhanced cleaning and disinfection protocols, especially for high-touch areas like desktops and doorknobs. They will be cleaned with increased frequency, as well. More disinfecting equipment will be added.

Modifications of physical spaces will be instituted, with plexiglass barriers in main offices and increased outdoor air circulation. Furniture will be moved or rearranged to accommodate social distancing. Also, there will be more hand sanitizer, personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies, as well as a sanitizing and cleaning kit for each classroom and office space. There will be increased custodial staff for cleaning and sanitization needs, and additional technology resources will be available to prevent sharing of computing devices.

To limit exposure, schedules will be modified to create smaller cohorts of students, minimizing transitions through buildings. No nonessential visitors would be allowed. There will be defined traffic patterns in hallways, with occupancy limits in common spaces. Food service will be altered to accommodate social distancing, and efforts will be made to reduce the number of riders on buses per route to maintain physical distancing.

Furthermore, in regard to transportation, there will be additional bus routes and proactive cleaning practices will be put in place, with bus rider protocols to limit COVID-19 risks.

Athletics

New Athletic Director Rick Henert also spoke at Monday’s meeting. He said the Badger Conference is working through how to proceed with fall sports and activities.

Henert noted there are seven counties represented in the conference, with Dane County being the most restrictive in relation to COVID-19. More information will be made available in the coming weeks. The Big 8 Conference has already canceled its fall sports season, and the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference followed suit on Monday.

The Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association has already delayed fall high school sports. Henert said it was foreseeable that Dane County schools would be able to begin their sports seasons on the start dates.

Henert did raise the possibility of other Badger Conference schools located in other counties, such as Sauk Prairie, Baraboo and Portage, being able to play, while those in Dane County, like DeForest and Waunakee, wouldn’t.

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