The Lodi School District will begin the 2020-21 academic year with an enhanced online instructional model.
The school board was in unanimous approval during a special meeting on July 29. It came after the recommendation of District Administrator Vince Breunig to begin the year in a virtual setting.
After a lengthy discussion, in addition to a previous special meeting of the board on July 22, the board finalized its decision for the fall, one of the last districts in the area to do so.
The enhanced part of the online model is allowing certain kids, who have been identified as needing extra assistance, to come into the respective school buildings for additional in-person instruction on an as-needed basis.
The meeting began with public comments, where six parents spoke virtually to the board. Two were in favor of the online model, while the rest favored in-person. The two in favor of online learning cited that it was the safest for all involved. Those wanting in-person instruction brought up the fact that young kids were in summer school at Lodi Primary School, which was going well. Another said that in-person was needed because of the change of attitudes and personalities in their children as a result of needing the socialization with classmates and structured learning.
Before board members took the vote, the lengthy discussion was had in order to make sure that a decision based on the best interest for all was being made.
Breunig spoke of the data from the state as well as Columbia and Dane counties. He said that the numbers in the state and Columbia County are “trending in the wrong direction.” He also said that Dane County is trending in the right direction currently, but perhaps because there are more restrictions in that county.
He added that the cases in Columbia County and statewide have doubled in the last month and that new cases are mostly in people aged 18-29. The COVID-19 activity is high in both Dane and Columbia counties. Breunig said that all the information is valuable “because the district straddles both counties.”
School Board President H. Adam Steinberg noted that things are twice as bad as they were in spring and that half of all the statewide COVID-19 cases have come within the last five weeks. He said that while Columbia County is not currently a “hot spot,” the district sits close to one (in Madison), where people from the area travel to work, to shop, or for other reasons. He added that people can spread coronavirus without knowing they have it, and that’s a big problem.
“My recommendation now is different than it was three weeks ago,” Breunig said, adding that he’s also had staff members say they would rather teach from home. An in-person model also brought up the uncertainty of the numbers of substitute teachers available to the district because many are older and choosing to stay home as well.
“Budget-wise, it’ll be difficult to reopen and bring kids back,” Breunig added. “My recommendation now would be to go online. That’s hard for me to say, but that’s in the best interest for everyone. It’s easier to spiral upward than downward. To spiral downward would be devastating to families.”
Breunig noted that 20 students were at Lodi Primary School for a three-week summer school program, one that lasts three hours a day. One group was 4K students who were being prepared for what they would see in kindergarten, while the other group were kindergartners who may have needed a little extra instruction from the 2019-20 year. He also said that some kids were struggling with masks and distancing, but that was expected out of the younger students.
It also conveyed that in-person instruction may not be in the best interest for students and staff based on what may be happening outside of the buildings.
“Teachers can control the environment in the classroom, but can’t control things once outside, and I think that puts our staff at the most risk,” board member Barb Beyer said.
All knew how tough the upcoming decision was to make, knowing that the district would receive feedback no matter what they chose.
“People feel strongly both ways,” Breunig said. “There’s positives and negatives with all models. While in-person is the most effective, it’s also the most dangerous right now. We need to decide what’s in the best interest for students, staff, families and the community.”
Board member Bill Wipperfurth was the one to ask about setting a date to revisit things, and suggested that the district stay in this plan through the first quarter, which ends Nov. 6. The board can then discuss plans during its October meeting — whether to switch models or continue the enhanced online model for the second quarter or beyond. Wipperfurth added that he, too, was in favor of providing certain students who needed help with the added in-person instruction.
During his presentation, Breunig brought a six-step plan to the attention of the board. Each step was a different instructional model, ones that the district may be able to incorporate throughout the year.
The first step was the one decided on by the board, and recommended by Breunig — an enhanced online option, which provides virtual learning with targeted additional in-person support. Step 2 was for grades 4K-5 to be blended and grades 6-12 be virtual. Step 3 was for 4K-5 to remain blended, but to have grades 6-12 move toward an in-person setup, with cohorts and online learning. Step 4 would have grades 4K-5 move to traditional in-person learning with cohorts and for grades 6-12 to remain the same as in Step 3. The fifth step would have all grades in person, but be placed in cohorts. The sixth and final step would be a full traditional in-person model, like how the 2019-2020 academic year began.
Breunig said that it could be possible to move between the steps throughout the year. It would be similar to what was laid out in the Badger Bounce Back Plan and the Forward Dane Plan, which would then depend on case trends in the area and other information from the various health departments. He felt that starting at Step 1 was the most logical choice right now.
Other board members agreed.
“I fear going backward,” board treasurer Steven Ricks said, noting it may not be best to start at a higher step.
Breunig added, “The robustness of the virtual option is the backbone for the blended model.”
Director of Student Services Tiffany Loken said that she thought the nice thing about the enhanced online model was the ability to scale things up or down based on the different data being submitted by health departments and the district.
The district sent out a survey to parents/guardians and teachers in the district on Friday, July 24, and asked that they be returned by Monday, July 27.
While not everyone who was sent a survey responded, due to the requested quick turnaround, Breunig said the surveys received are a good representation of families and staff. He estimates about 67% of district families (1,004) and 72% of teachers (160) responded. Of the families represented, 257 were from the high school, 268 from the middle school, 236 from the elementary school and OSC, and 243 from the primary school.
The first question asked of families was if health officials said it was safe to return to school, with the proper safety measures in place, would you send your child to school on Sept. 1. Those who said yes, but with concerns ranged from 44%-51%, while those with no concerns ranged from 34%-43% across the district. An average of 10% did not feel comfortable.
A comparable question was asked to staff members about how much concern they had for an-in person return on Sept. 1, with their answers being either “significantly concerned,” “slightly concerned,” “I am neutral,” or “no concern.” Teachers who had significant concerns ranged from 48%-59% across the district, with an additional 30%-37% having slight concerns. Only about 5% of all teachers who responded had no concerns.
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Another question asked was about the preferred method of instruction as things stood now, at the end of July. About 50% of families across the district answered with the traditional model, while an additional 28% said blended. The highest percentage of those who preferred the traditional model was 53% of LPS parents. About 16% percent of all respondents were in favor of the full virtual learning.
The answers from teachers went the other way from those of families. Fifty-five percent of teachers at LHS and 59% from LES said they preferred the virtual model, while 45% of LPS teachers and 42% of LMS teachers responded that way. Additionally, five of the six teacher respondents from OSC preferred the virtual model. The answer of blended came from 23% of LHS teachers, 34% of LMS teachers, 37% of LES teachers and 31% of LPS teachers. The highest percentage of teachers who preferred the traditional model was the 24% from LPS, while less than 4% of LES teachers preferred that model.
With the numbers being split and the change seen from surveys in the spring, it was an added factor in Breunig recommending the enhanced online model to the board.
Toward the conclusion of the meeting, Breunig pointed out to the board that the next decisions for them to make would be to provide guidance and expectations of the staff under the approved model, and how to handle co-curriculars. He said that could be discussed at the Aug. 10 meeting.