Howery and Halvorson

McFarland School Board President Craig Howery (right) and Vice President Arlyn Halvorson (left) hear a presentation on the potential extension of virtual learning into the 2021-22 school year.

Last Monday night was a busy one for McFarland School Board members as the board elected a new president and gave input on whether or not the district should continue with virtual learning next school year.

Board Members Craig Howery and Christine Pribbenow were both nominated for board president, with Howery ultimately taking the seat after receiving the most votes from fellow board members.

Howery will assume the role of board president from former president Arlyn Halvorson, who will now be vice president.

Also at Monday night’s board meeting, Board Member Kate Green was elected treasurer and Pribbenow was elected clerk.

The May 3 meeting was the very first for both Green and fellow newly elected Board Member Bruce Fischer, who jumped right into the ongoing conversation on school reopening amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Director of Teaching and Learning Melissa Pfohl presented to the board a list of different routes the district could take to keep virtual learning for the 2021-22 school year.

When the district made a decision to transition its students back to in-person learning last year, a virtual option was not initially offered as an alternative. Families wary of sending their children back to school amid the pandemic were forced to transfer out of the district and into Wisconsin Virtual Academy (WIVA).

WIVA, a sister school to MSD that operates independently, was a disappointment to an overwhelming amount of families, Pfohl said.

“As we’ve moved through this school year, we have heard feedback from our resident McFarland families attending WIVA that WIVA did not meet their needs or expectations for learning,” she said. “There were some families who felt disconnected from our district and shared concerns about class sizes at WIVA, as well as a disconnect between the curriculum at WIVA and that of our brick and mortar schools.”

The district was quick to develop its own in-house virtual learning option for the 2020-21 school year, which could potentially now be extended to next school year as well.

“We’re looking at an in-house virtual option available for all K through 12 students [in 2021-22]… which we’re hoping to guarantee for the full school year,” said Pfohl. “But the in-house virtual option... it may look very different from the one that we’re offering right now.”

Pfohl said the virtual option may have a teacher broadcasting live on-screen, or could also include recordings that students can stop and start at their own pace.

She did confirm that, should the virtual option be extended into next school year, McFarland teachers would receive an increase in pay to support the extra labor of balancing both in-person and virtual students.

“One piece of feedback we’ve heard from teachers is that, to be able to teach concurrently, which means to teach live students and virtual students at the same time, is a huge undertaking,” said Pfohl. “If we are going to ask teachers to teach concurrently, we are looking into having additional compensation, like an overload pay.”

While there’s currently 245 district students utilizing virtual learning, that number seems to be slowly tapering off. Since February, nearly 150 students have opted to discontinue virtual learning and head back to physical school.

Whether or not there will be enough demand for virtual learning to justify keeping it as an option next school year is still unclear. Pfohl said the district plans on sending out a survey to parents in the near future.

Although the district community has seen a strong divide in opinion this year on which learning model is best, Halvorson said he thinks an extension of the virtual learning option would be a happy medium for many families.

“I think it’s a great plan, I was very impressed with it,” Halvorson said on Pfohl’s presentation. “I really applaud it… it looks like we’ve got something that’s really going to work and it’ll make a lot of people happy.”

The board is likely set to hear a finalized plan for the 2021-22 school year and take an official vote at its June 7 meeting, though Pfohl said it might be able to happen as soon as May 17.

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