For now, the DeForest Area School District will see how a hybrid of in-person and virtual learning goes for students in grades K-2, while continuing to monitor the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on education.
The transition from fully virtual to a hybrid with in-person instruction for those students begins Tuesday, Oct. 6.
Superintendent Eric Runez told the school board Monday, Sept. 14, that logistics prevent the district from switching to the hybrid model earlier, even though a Dane County Public Health order is allowing K-2 students to physically return to school.
“The start time reactions have been that it’s too fast or too slow,” said Runez. “It is subjective. It really does take time to make the transition.”
The item was not on the agenda for the school board to take action on it. The board has approved the reopening plan and given the administration the ability to decide how and when the district will transition from phase to phase.
Now in its third week of school, DeForest opted to begin the year with fully virtual instruction. The order from Dane County Public Health has given the district the opportunity to pivot for those in grades K-2.
“We’re trying to be deliberate,” said Runez.
In making the determination, Runez noted how some schools that started with full in-person instruction have reversed course and at least temporarily returned to all virtual learning. Two schools in Janesville made that decision this week due to coronavirus outbreaks, as did Brodhead-Juda earlier this month.
Runez said he was not recommending full in-person instruction because of the difficulties in adhering to social distancing guidelines and keeping students in small-group cohorts with a return of the entire student body. School officials will monitor how K-2 students are able to stick to social distancing requirements and how they’re able to cohort.
Runez said the next logical step would be to integrate additional grades into the hybrid model before going fully in-person.
“For everyone in the district, from families to students and staff, they’ve navigated these circumstances well,” said Runez. “There’s not a lot of control over certain things, but we’re handling it the best we can.”
Technology has been a major area of focus for the district. To date, there have been 1,700 device requests, with 104 mobile hotspots provided.
“We’re expecting more to fill in the gaps,” said Kim Bannigan, the district’s coordinator of learning information systems.
Jeff Miller, a school board member, asked if there were families that had requested mobile hotspots but hadn’t received them. Bannigan said there 45 such cases, although not all of them were without an internet connection. She also said there were one or two that don’t have a connection and that one had been using a cell phone for school, while explaining that the district was expecting more mobile hotspots on Friday, Sept. 11. They didn’t arrive.
“They are participating, but not in the same way as other families,” said Bannigan.
Bannigan said it’s a problem in rural areas everywhere, adding that some places in the DeForest district are going without because broadband companies haven’t provided connections to them.
“It’s a bigger issue than our district,” said Bannigan. “It’s a federal issue.”
Runez said school officials are following up to provide support. Spencer Statz, a school board member, talked about some of the difficulties his kids have experienced with getting onto meetings. He said his oldest is receiving assignments by email.
Bannigan also reported there were 247 “remote” help tickets submitted between Aug. 28 and Sept. 10. Nearly 300 Gmail and voicemail assistance calls were delivered Aug. 29 through Sept. 10. She also talked about how a help guide has been provided so families can troubleshoot problems from home.
“We understand it’s a tough spot for families,” said Bannigan.
With regard to response time, Bannigan said it is better today. A week ago, it was taking longer. Two days was the norm because of the volume of requests.
Meanwhile, 234 teachers completed Universal Design for Learning and Blended Learning professional development, with 290 certified staff finishing Teacher Readiness professional development for virtual learning.
A total of 2,195 Google Meet sessions were held Aug. 24-31 in preparation for the school year.
Specific back-to-school training was provided for different employment groups in the district, according to Pete Wilson, director of administrative services.
Along with more resources for buildings and training, new cleaning routines have been implemented.
On the eve of the start of school, two days of materials pick-up and delivery occurred, with the delivery of more than 500 bags of material taking place over 1.5 days.
Kathy Davis-Phillips, the district’s director of business and auxiliary services, noted that the federal government reinstated its free meal program. The challenge, she said, was to prepare to-go meals.
During the first week of the program, 519 meals were picked up, with 3,108 more in the second week and 6,320 in the third week. Davis-Phillips said 600 families participated.
Teaching and learning
Director of Instruction Rebecca Toetz said there’s been a lot of positive reviews for the district’s synchronous learning sessions so far, with relationships and routines being established.
Synchronous learning refers to instruction where learners and instructors are together in the same place in time, including online meetings.
Toetz said parents of elementary school children have done a little less teachings, but have helped more with structure for their kids.
With asynchronous learning, where instruction doesn’t occur at the same place or the same time, Toetz said that as teachers get to know their students, there will be more small group and individual instruction.
Sara Totten, director of student services, talked about how social and emotional learning is continuing for students.
The district is finishing up Phase 1 of virtual instruction.
Meanwhile, the district continues to communicate with parents about the Return to School plan. Debbie Brewster, coordinator of school and community relations, said there is communication with families every week. She also said that there will be more communication with parents of K-2 students on Tuesday, Sept. 15.
A meeting with K-2 staff was held Sept. 8 to go through initial plans to bring K-2 students back into the buildings. Staff, students and families will be surveyed at the end of the month to see how virtual learning is going.
With regard to personnel issues, Director of Human Resources Nate Jaeger reported that returning to full in-person instruction could trigger more leave requests from staff. Any required quarantines related to “close contacts” with anyone deemed to have contracted coronavirus and other scenarios will put added strain on staff.
Miller said he had received comments from a parent of a child who goes to Windsor Elementary about a class having a ratio of 26 students to one teacher.
Runez admitted that was the case. He said that as the district was trying to balance out classes, in some instances, there were higher class sizes than what is desired by the district. That particular case of 26 students to one teacher is the highest right now, according to Toetz. It is something staff is working on.
With Public Health Madison and Dane County providing school metrics to guide decisions for reopening all grades for in-person instruction, and K-2 in-person instruction now allowed, DeForest is focusing on K-2 transition first.
A Supreme Court injunction on Sept. 10 suspended the prohibition on in-person learning for grades 3-12. Still, DeForest isn’t ready to bring all students back for in-person learning.
The administration will continue to evaluate for other grade levels. A medical advisory team is being established to help guide decisions. The administration is hoping to include a doctor and someone from Public Health. Classrooms and spaces are being prepared for the return of K-2 students, with health and safety protocols being established. Tables are being replaced by desks.
“We planned for a virtual start, so teachers need time to get their classrooms ready,” said Runez.
With regard to food service, lunch will be taken in classrooms. School officials want to keep cohort groups together for meals, which will be delivered to classrooms. Proper cleaning procedures will take place following those meals.
There are strict rules in place for eating in classrooms. Students will not be allowed to bring in food to share.
Davis-Phillips said social distancing in buses will be a challenge. She said a lot of parents have volunteered to drive their kids to school, however. There are cleaning and rider protocols in place for buses.
In the hybrid model, K-2 students will be divided into two groups, according to the initial of their last name. The school day will run from 7:40 a.m. to 2:40 p.m. There will be no live streaming into classrooms. It’s too difficult for teachers to pay attention to students at home and in the classroom.
If a staff member or student tests positive for coronavirus, the district will follow Public Health guidelines in dealing with it. Runez said there would be a “ripple effect,” which could involve anything from student quarantine all the way to school closure.