The idea of expanding in-person learning in the DeForest Area School District to bring back students in grades 3-5 seems to be gaining traction.

Superintendent Eric Runez talked about the possibility at the Monday, Oct. 26 school board meeting, mentioning mental health factors as a driving force behind considering such a move.

Runez would like to see Dane County and Madison Public Health reconsider allowing their return.

“Whatever the rationale for bringing back K-2 students is likely to apply to 3-5,” said Runez.

While Runez said almost all school districts in Dane County support Public Health guidelines that provide for the return of K-2 students to in-person instruction, there is one that is working outside of them. That’s Waunakee, which has brought students in grades 3-4 back to school.

Runez said he believes the move goes against the advice of Waunakee’s Medical Advisory Team.

As for DeForest, Runez said the district’s own Medical Advisory Team is reviewing information and having conversations around issues related to returning students in grades 3-5 to in-person learning.

Runez said Dane County superintendents did meet with Dane County Executive Joe Parisi to discuss data that could inform their metrics about in-person learning. Runez said they are waiting on Public Health or Dane County’s Department of Human Services to consider mental health factors in deciding whether to bring students back to school or not.

Runez said the hope is that they will hear more about next steps by the end of the week.

Public Health metrics for returning students in grades 3-5 to school include a 14-day average of 39 or fewer cases per day that must be sustained for four weeks. For students in grades 6-12, the 14-day average is 19 or fewer cases, which also must be sustained for four weeks.

According to Runez, Dane County’s restrictions are more stringent than other areas.

Public Health COVID-19 data

As part of the presentation to the school board, Runez talked about Public Health data regarding COVID-19. As of Oct. 22, cases per day in Dane County have ranged from 69 to 217, with an average of 133 per day. Runez said the county continues to see higher case count days, with several recent instances in the 200s, as hospitalizations for the coronavirus remain at high levels.

The Department of Health Services recently issued an update reporting that hospitalizations in the south central region of Wisconsin are growing by 15 percent, with 81.2 percent of hospital beds in use in the region. As of Oct. 21, there were 90 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 and 22 in ICUs.

During the past month, Public Health has been reviewing COVID-19 clusters and doing facility investigations. Clusters are two or more cases associated with the same location, group or event around the same time.

There were nine unique clusters in child care, along with 37 associated cases. In schools, there were two unique clusters and six associated cases.

Most of the other school cases and clusters fall into three categories. Either the exposure was unrelated to school environments, or the person was linked to out-of-county contacts or cases that Public Health does not have access to. A third category is that there is not enough information documented to assess for school-related exposure.

Runez’s presentation also noted that Public Health is still seeing more cases in schools and child care that are associated with staff as opposed to students.

As of Oct. 22, there were 22 unique investigations of child care facilities, with 23 associated cases. That’s compared to 28 unique investigations of schools and 32 associated cases, Three separate school clusters were identified in Dane County as of Oct. 21 with evidence that transmission occurred within the school.

DASD and COVID-19

There was one active positive case of COVID-19 with staff in the school district as of Oct. 26 and two positive student cases. With regard to active quarantines, there were 16 for staff and 37 for students.

Runez explained that active quarantines could result from being identified as a close contact of someone with COVID-19, from experiencing symptoms or other scenarios outlined by Public Health. All members of a defined cohort are considered a close contact in the event of a positive case.

Active positive cases are defined as those of individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19 and are still isolating. Runez said the impact of active cases has been minimal on district operations. Those employees are still able to telework.

When Dane County superintendents met with Parisi, they talked about reconsideration of indoor facility use, athletics and activities for students, along with mental health and reconsidering the return of students in grades 3-5.

Runez said with the weather turning colder, finding athletic or after-school activities for students will be important.

“We have to figure ways to turn the dial to provide activities for students,” said Runez.

Survey results

Recent surveys of families and staff were conducted to see how the K-2 hybrid/in-person model was working so far.

The district is now in its fourth week of K-2 in the hybrid, which combines in-person instruction with virtual learning.

Among families, there was a 62 percent response rate, with 594 surveys sent out and 367 responses. The response rate for staff was 84 percent, with 201 surveys sent to 126 certified staff and 75 support staff and a total of 168 responses.

Of those, 74 percent are currently teaching in the hybrid/virtual model.

From the responses of families, it was clear that parents and guardians, as well as students, are happy to be back in school, according to Debbie Brewster, the district’s school and community relations coordinator. However, Brewster reported there were concerns about the three asynchronous days of learning without having a connection to teachers.

In all, 26% of respondents said that the K-2 hybrid model was very effective, with 46 percent saying it was moderately effective, another 16 percent reporting that it is slightly effective and 7 percent indicating that it is extremely effective.

The district has been exploring a schedule with four half days of in-person learning, as opposed to the two days and three asynchronous days in the current model.

A schedule of four half days would mean cohorts of students attending school in-person Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, with Wednesday as an asynchronous day.

The in-person time would focus on literacy, math and some social science.

This would eliminate students eating lunch at school, although meals would be available for pick-up.

“Any model you look at has its benefits and its downfalls,” said Runez.

Brewster said survey results on this topic indicated “nothing decisive.” Only 31 percent said yes when asked if they support the district further considering a schedule of four half days, with 42 percent saying no and 28 percent saying they were unsure.

Going further, 65 respondents indicated there was “nothing positive about it” or that they see very few positives.

There were 362 comments on the positive aspects of the four half-day hybrid schedule. More frequent and consistent contact with teachers and peers was identified as the most important.

However, a number of challenges were dredged up in the 334 comments. Some were concerned about child care, transportation and family scheduling. Others were worried about the impact of more changes on students or that there would be too many transitions in one day for them. Another had to do with having more students in the buildings each day.

Transportation is a big stumbling block. In response to a question about whether families would be willing to transport their children to and from school in the four half day model, 34% said yes and 34% said no. Brewster said that having to drive their kids to and from school four days a week, with some having to do so in the middle of the day, probably had an impact on those numbers.

As far as staff currently working in the current K-2 hybrid model were concerned, 13 percent found it very effective in supporting student learning, 38 percent said it was moderately effective and 24 percent noted that it was slightly effective. They did indicate that face-to-face instruction offers better support for learning. However, staff is finding it challenging to stick to scheduled movements, mask breaks and meals, and safety protocol reminders.

They also find the three asynchronous days problematic.

All K-4 staff seem supportive of the four half days model, with 59 percent saying they believe it is best, while 31 percent favored the current hybrid model of two days. Of those currently working in the K-2 hybrid model, 69 percent liked the four half day model best, while 16 percent went with the current model.

Among the positive aspects mentioned by staff in support of the four half days were the opportunity to see students four days rather than two, less time on mask breaks, hand washing and eating, and the ability to reinforce new learning more frequently.

They also identified many of the same challenges families did, along with the amount of time each day for instruction and the additional cleaning and sanitizing that would place more stress on custodial staff.

Next steps

The district will maintain the current schedule for students in grades K-2. Officials will put an emphasis on fixing issues with it and consider adjustments to address teacher and parent concerns.

A timeline will also be established for families to make any changes at the trimester.

There was also an update provided to the board on Phase 2 of bringing back special education students. The first phase returned 89 total students to in-person learning. Phase 2 is projected to bring back 55 additional students.

The report also noted a clarification from Public Health, which stated that its amended order did not require in-person services to all students with individual education plans. Most are able to receive a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) through distance learning, it explained. The amended order was directed at allowing in-person specially designed instruction for those with an IEP who have unique needs.

The criteria for Phase 2 students returning is determined by student data from this fall that demonstrates a regression in IEP goal progress or that a student cannot access FAPE in a virtual environment.

Officials will be looking at communicating with family and surveying them about attendance and transportation the week of Oct. 26. Staff scheduling will be worked on the week of Nov. 2, with additional determinations for Phase 2 for high school students coming the week of Nov. 9.

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