Transitioning of DeForest Area School District students in grades K-2 back to some in-person learning began last week.
Adjusting to the new normal with COVID-19 has been challenging, but so far, having kids return to school facilities has gone well, according to Superintendent Eric Runez.
“Evolve and adapt” has been the mantra for students and staff this year, said Runez.
“We’re talking about our youngest learners,” said Runez. “They’ve followed our expectations with wearing masks, they’ve generally been able to keep distancing and they’ve been washing their hands and sanitizing.”
The district’s K-2 students are now in a hybrid learning model, combining in-person instruction with virtual learning.
Runez said he’s heard how excited staff are to see kids back in school. At the same time, proximity has been an issue, he said. The hugging that used to take place isn’t happening anymore, Runez explained.
There have also been concerns about the length of the school day and giving time for mask breaks. Allowing time for such matters as sanitizing and bathroom breaks is something everybody is trying to figure out. Eating lunch is different, too, as students must stay in their classrooms to eat.
It is different having students in cohorts, Runez said, as teachers are with the same students for “good chunks of time,” he said. Keeping them in cohorts is part of the plan for now, however, as officials feel it’s important if a coronavirus case should arise and staff would need to do contact tracing.
Runez and staff gave an update on K-2 transitioning and reopening the schools at the school board meeting on Monday, Oct. 12.
Currently, K-2 students are in two cohort groupings and doing two full days of in-person learning on Monday and Tuesday, or Thursday and Friday. There are three days a week of asynchronous learning, where teachers do not have real-time interaction with students and content is made available for them to learn on their own time. Morning meetings are held on Wednesdays.
Runez acknowledged that Wisconsin has seen lots of spikes in COVID-19 cases recently. District staff continue to coordinate with Public Health Madison & Dane County and its guidelines for reopening schools.
Even with the concerning trends in coronavirus cases, Runez said Public Health is not making any changes at this time to its current recommendations.
“I think Dane County has been pretty deliberate and careful about reopening,” said Runez.
Runez did discuss what would go into a determination by Public Health to implement a county-wide closure of in-person classes. It would be based on several factors, including the number and trend of positive cases, extent of exposure and contact tracing capacity, among other things.
The update provided at Monday’s school board meeting noted, “While there are some concerning trends in data, including increased community spread beyond UW and increased hospitalizations, (Public Health) is not seeing strong connections to in-person school environments.”
Throughout Dane County, many schools only have K-2 open for in-person instruction and are reopening in phases. Going with K-2 first “is a way to carefully minimize risk of exposure that is supported by science and starts getting youth back to in-person training,” according to the district update.
DeForest’s Director of Human Resources Nathan Jaeger reported at the school board meeting that there have been two COVID-19 positive cases with staff in the district. However, neither are active, said Jaeger.
Because DeForest started the school year with all virtual learning, the district hasn’t been able to determine if there have been any student cases. Officials do believe there have been some cases, but they have not been made aware of any.
According to Public Health Madison & Dane County, as of Oct. 7, there have been 25 positive cases of staff or students at K-12 schools. Five are students ages 6 to 11, while the other 20 are teachers and staff.
The district update explained that in looking at the 25 cases, most of the exposure was unrelated to the school environment, there was not enough information documented to assess school-related exposure or the person was linked to out-of-county contacts or cases Public Health couldn’t access. The latter made it impossible for Public Health to access if they were part of a cluster.
Public Health has determined that aside from four cases involving two separate households, there has been no link found between the 25 cases.
Runez said it might have been the spouse of a school employee that may have triggered a quarantine or a positive case.
While continuing to monitor for coronavirus clusters in schools, Public Health still supports allowing K-2 in-person instruction at this time.
School Board Director Jeff Miller had concerns about the data from Public Health. He wants more of it targeted to different grade levels, and Miller wondered why Public Health is not looking at the data school district by school district.
“I don’t think they’re coming forward with the data we need,” said Miller.
Runez said school officials would like that, too, although he did say that Public Health looks at the data in totality.
“They are mindful that it’s not just children, because each school has adults, too,” said Runez.
Mobility in the county is also something that muddies the waters.
Runez said there was a lot of excitement with having K-2 students back in school.
“Just being around the buildings, there’s just been a lot of enthusiasm, just a lot of routines and practices,” said Pete Wilson, the district’s director of administrative services. Wilson also credited the district’s custodians with keeping buildings clean, as did Runez.
From the start, teachers hit the ground running with their students.
“There was good learning happening on day one,” said Runez, which he feels was indicative of the good instruction occurring in virtual learning.
The length of the school day is a concern, however. Runez said there’s been a lot of sitting, which makes for a long school day, he said.
Lunch has gone well, with kids being asked to stay at their desks to eat.
Runez said officials will continue to evaluate and monitor all of the district’s learning modalities. He also said they will try to learn from other school districts and their reopening experiences.
“A lot of other districts are just like us,” said Runez. “They’re easing back into instruction.”
Runez said a survey will be sent out to elementary school staff this week to see how things are going. Another will be sent to families next week.
Otherwise, the district will continue to follow guidance from Public Health and the recommendations of its own Medical Advisory Team.
So far, Runez said families have been generally positive through what has not been an ideal situation.
School officials talked about the feedback from a virtual learning survey sent to families in September. They noted that around 80 percent of families indicated that the virtual learning model had moderately to extremely effective.
Still, Miller expressed frustration that reopening the schools isn’t happening fast enough.
“Maybe it’s my impatience, but it seems like we’re moving a bit slow,” said Miller.
For instance, Waunakee has expanded its in-person instruction to those in grades 3-4, but Runez said that move went against Waunakee’s Medical Advisory Team’s recommendation.