The reopening of school in the DeForest Area School District continues to be a hotly debated topic.
At the Nov. 23 school board meeting, students and community members, as well as district staff, voiced their opinions, as reports of increasing cases of COVID-19 grip the state of Wisconsin.
In advocating for more in-person instruction, two third graders spoke about the difficulty of online learning and how it was hard to focus. They also talked about missing their friends and teachers, and how hard it is to get help.
Jody Schumacher, a mom of a student in the district, discussed the mental and physical struggles her child was going through. Schumacher also mentioned how much her child wanted to go back to school.
“Moving into winter is only going to exacerbate the situation,” said Schumacher.
Bridget Neubauer, a first grade teacher at Eagle Point Elementary School, pushed for a switch to virtual learning, especially after the holidays, in a letter to the school board. Neubauer wrote that there was an increased risk of coronavirus spread in schools after friends and families gather for holiday celebrations, adding that the district’s virtual learning model offers “a high level of learning” and is good for engagement.
A letter from the DeForest Area Education Association, which represents teachers in the district, also argued for switching to virtual learning for the safety of students, staff and families to ensure a safe return to school for everybody in the future. The letter also expressed concern that some in the district may not follow COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings and sleepovers over the holidays.
No Virtual “Cooling Off” Period
One idea district officials had considered and then abandoned was a virtual “cooling off period.”
In theory, Superintendent Eric Runez said, “On the face of it, it sounds reasonable, but there are some significant concerns.”
How it works is, when students return from an extended break, those who are in the in-person model would switch temporarily to the virtual learning environment.
“The thinking is it provides time for any potential contagious spread to materialize and be identified following gatherings that we anticipate families would still participate in during the holidays,” explained Runez. “It would require at least a 14-day period following the break to have any potential impact.”
Runez further explained that the extension of virtual instruction could unintentionally promote gatherings by giving a false safety precaution. He also said it may force families to find alternative childcare options that are less safe than actually being in school. Public Heath is finding lower transmission rates in the school environment, due to the protocols and precautions schools implement to mitigate the potential for spread.
Runez added, “Also, if families are forced to find alternatives to school or gather because of the closure of in-person, we potentially would need to add more time onto the ‘cooling off period’ leading to uncertainty of when it should actually end. For these reasons, the district has decided to stay with our current schedule with a plan to quarantine or move to virtual as necessary.”
Spencer Statz, a member of the school board, said the “wild card in the equation” is, “What are families going to do over the holidays?”
An update on the district’s reopening process was provided at the school board meeting. There was debate among board members regarding the role of the newly created Medical Advisory Team’s (MAT) in administration decision-making.
Back in July, the board gave Superintendent Eric Runez authorization to make decisions regarding COVID-19 and the reopening of school based on guidelines from Public Health Madison & Dane County.
Board Member Steve Tenpas asked if it was a good idea to “sunset” that directive and switch to basing decisions on information from the district MAT.
School Board President Jan Berg added, “It also seems like Public Health is not moving very quickly to reassess its data,” with regards to schools and COVID-19.
Jeff Miller, another member of the school board, said he has sit in on MAT meetings. He wondered if the superintendent could go with MAT recommendations if they conflicted with Public Health guidelines.
Brian Coker, another member of the school board, said he got the sense that if Runez intended to rely on a different way to make decisions, he would come before the board and ask for that authorization.
“I’m not hearing that’s what he’s asking for,” said Coker.
During his report, Runez indicated that the COVID-19 snapshot from Public Health was concerning. According to Public Health, the growth of the illness in Wisconsin and the area is “alarming.”
“Public Health shared that they are concerned about the growing number of cases,” said Runez. The increased number of severe cases is also troubling for Public Health, Runez said.
While Public Health has reported that it is unable to perform contact tracing, Runez said the district’s team locally – consisting of nurses and a handful of administrators – can do it in its school system.
COVID-19 is at a critically high level, according to Public Health. The percent positivity, new cases, contact tracing capacity and community spread are all cause for concern.
There was one bit of good news locally. Last month, it was reported that the local area was one of nine municipalities with significantly higher rates than the rest of Dane County. Runez said that was no longer the case for DeForest-Windsor.
Runez also discussed the recent Order #10 from Public Health, noting that it doesn’t have any impact on PHMDC’s recommendation for schools to continue in-person education for K-2 students. However, it does affect school athletics and activities, effectively shutting them down as it prohibits all indoor gatherings and restricts outdoor gatherings to 10 people or less.
Runez said a decision on whether winter events will go on as planned may have to wait until early December.
Lastly, the report recommended that any additional phasing in of more students for in-person learning should wait until after winter break.
School nurse Amanda Motiff addressed possible coronavirus spread in the district, saying that the majority of cases seemed to come from outside forces. Motiff also talked about the mental health effects of not having in-person learning. She said it affects youngest learners the most, noting that the consistent isolation is hard on them.