By a 7-2 vote, the DeForest Area School Board approved a plan to phase in returning students in grades 3-12 to in-person learning on Monday, Jan. 11, albeit in a hybrid model that includes virtual instruction as well.

Those in grades 3 and 4 will be brought back on Jan. 25, followed by fifth graders on Jan. 26. Students in grades 6, 7 and 9 go back Feb. 8, with the rest in grades 8, 10, 11 and 12 making their return on Feb. 22.

Superintendent Eric Runez noted the district has received a lot of feedback from families and students, community members and staff on both sides of the issue.

Runez reiterated, “Staff does want to be with their students.”

For the entire school year so far, students in grades 3-12 have attended school entirely in a virtual environment, due to safety concerns related to COVID-19. Gail Lovick and Jeff Miller cast the dissenting votes.

Some who spoke during the community input portion of Monday’s meeting were frustrated with how slow the district has moved toward returning students physically back to school.

Megan Taylor, from DeForest, is running in the spring election against Sue Esser for a spot on the school board. Taylor opined that it is well past time to get students back to school in person.

“We cannot allow the virus to be a detriment to student learning, to social skills and to their mental well-being,” said Taylor, before adding that she “can no longer sit back and watch the board and the administration procrastinate.”

In addition to deciding on a return-to-school plan, the board also unanimously approved a new face covering policy for all students, employees and visitors.

According to the policy, “a ’Face Covering’ means a piece of cloth or other material that is worn to cover the nose and mouth completely. A Face Covering includes a mask that is provided by the District. A Face Covering also includes a mask that is brought from home so long as the mask is made of at least two layers of cloth or is a disposable paper mask (sometimes called a medical or surgical mask) with at least three layers. A Face Covering does not include face shields (unless approved by health officials), mesh masks, masks with holes or openings, or masks with vents.”

Each individual on district premises must wear a face covering anytime while indoors in an enclosed space or while waiting in line to enter any district facility’s enclosed space. Those engaged in a school activity, including transportation, will also be required to wear a face covering.

There are instances spelled out in the policy where individuals may remove face coverings, such as when eating or drinking, when nobody else is in the room, when only members of someone’s household are in the room, or when permitted by the superintendent or administrators. Children under the age of five do not need to wear a face covering.

As for the return-to-school decision, the school board was presented with two options. The second offered an alternative timeline that sped up the process, allowing those in grades 3-4 to go back Jan. 19, followed by fifth and seventh graders on Jan. 26, grades six and eight Feb. 1, ninth graders on Feb. 8 and those in grades 10-12 on Feb. 15.

District officials were expected to send out communications to families either Tuesday, Jan. 12, or Wednesday, Jan. 13.

With the decision now made, district officials will be looking to complete the hybrid in-person transition, carry out the vaccination of staff and consider actual school spread, staffing availability, student attendance, space and the percentage of students wishing to remain virtual, the impact of quarantine periods, and input from Madison Dane County Public Health.

According to a presentation to the board, families of students in grades 3-12 have made their decisions on what kind of instruction they wanted for their children.

Those with students in grades 3-4 made their choice in November, with 62% choosing a hybrid model and 38% going with virtual.

Families with students in grades 5-12 submitted their decisions in January, with 64% of those with fifth and sixth graders choosing the hybrid model and 35% picking virtual. For those with students in grades 9-12, 56% decided in favor of the hybrid option, with 40% choosing the virtual model.

As for families with seventh and eighth graders, 61% picked the hybrid option, with 20% going with a virtual, synchronous learning approach and 18% virtual, self-paced approach.

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