The Sun Prairie Area School District (SPASD) has a response for parents of grade 3-5 students asking when it will be time for their students to move to hybrid instruction — but it may not be the response those parents are seeking.

The SPASD announced in October that students in early childhood to second grade would be moving to an A-B hybrid model of instruction, with students separated into A or B groups, or cohorts, and the A cohorts attending school Mondays and Tuesdays, with the B cohort attending Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesdays will remain a day for deep cleaning elementary schools, while the other two days would be for online instruction based on which days of the week students have in-person instruction.

SPASD Director of Elementary Teaching & Learning Rick Mueller said during the Nov. 9 Sun Prairie School Board meeting that the EC-2 hybrid instruction will allow about 60 percent, or 1,000 kids, to have the opportunity to come to school. “I have to say that’s really exciting,” Mueller said.

But, Mueller told the board, the move to hybrid instruction has generated questions from parents of students in grades 3-5 asking when their students will be added. With input from lots of people, Mueller said, there will be a schedule adjustment for kids in grades 3-5 in distance learning only.

“But this is moving from mostly recorded lessons to live teaching and learning throughout the day,” Mueller said, adding that does not mean kids are on devices throughout the day.

A similar schedule increases student access to instructional opportunities throughout the day. Mueller praised some teachers who have — without being told to — already experimented with live instruction.

The change creates consistency of schedules in grades K-5, Mueller said, which helps some families with children in those grades, but some having in-person instruction.

“Our conversation at this time is not about hybrid learning,” Mueller said. But if Public Health Madison Dane County (PHMDC) guidance changes, the district’s 3-5 grade students will also move to hybrid.

“What we’ve said to people is we will make that change at semester, if not sooner,” Mueller said, but only if PHMDC guidance changes.

The move to hybrid instruction has resulted in some split feelings between parents and teachers. Parents have already expressed concern about their children returning to in-person instruction amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but Nick Reichhoff, the SPASD Director of Student Policy and School Operations, said during the past week, 10 COVID cases have been recorded across the district among staff who are on site out of 2,314 staff and students on site during the week.

Several cases had no close contacts at work who had to quarantine as a result. Out of 9 positive cases among staff, very few had close contacts at school. Only one student tested positive since students came back Sept. 8.

“We do have big indications that there is spread in our community,” Reichhoff told the board, adding that 16 staffers have had to quarantine because of contacts with someone who has COVID.

Currently, there are 3,417 COVID cases in Dane County — an increased of 700 cases from previous week — and 11 percent are school-aged children.

Rogette Koby, parent of an SPASD second grader, wondered in written comments to the board how teachers will manage both in-person and online instruction for their students with a hybrid model.

“If the decision has already been made, I hope our teachers have the additional resources to be able to assist with the multitude of challenges working both in person and virtual. I also hope there will be some requirement that REQUIRES students who are tested positive to alert the school AND for our students exposed to be notified,” added Koby, who wrote that she does want her child to get back to school.

That’s not enough for one teacher, who expressed concern for teachers returning to in-person instruction — and insisted Sun Prairie School Board members do likewise by holding their meetings in person, too.

“Administrators and board members are standing by making decisions with risks that they do not have to take,” Horizon Music Teacher Joshua Schmidt wrote in an email to the board. “I ask you to start taking those risks along side the staff and students you represent; start having you school board meetings in person. If you are unwilling to take that risk, ask yourself why and then ask yourself why you are allowing Sun Prairie Area School District staff members to take those risks.”

Having to choose between their livelihood and death is a risk teachers shouldn’t have to take, Schmidt added.

“I understand that there are other extremely important factors,” Schmidt concluded, “and I do not envy our administrators for having to make plans under these circumstances. But I encourage you to think twice before continuing to allow the people you represent take risks that you may not be willing to take yourself.”

In a related item, the board approved temporary district-sponsored COVID Related Leave.

Based on a recommendation from SPASD Director of Human Resources Chris Sadler, the board approved the leave to be offered to permanent, limited term, or long-term employees of the SPASD through June 30, 2021.

In a memo to the board, Sadler pointed out the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act (FFCRA) was enacted by the federal government to ease the burden on employees whose lives were directly impacted by COVID-19 global health crisis.

Specifically, the act provides paid time off for employees who need to isolate due to COVID-19 symptoms or quarantine due to a COVID exposure or to provide care to immediate family members due to isolation or quarantine. Sadler wrote the bill allows an employee to access up to 80 hours of paid leave at 100% of wages for purposes of quarantine or isolation.

In addition, the FFCRA provided up to 12 weeks of reduced wages to those who were impacted by their child’s school or daycare closure due to COVID. This leave is funded directly by employers and is not reimbursed or subsidized through the Act.

Because employees have access to this temporary leave, their employer-provided Paid Time Off (PTO) is protected for up to the 80 hours of supplemental FFCRA leave.

But the FFCRA is set to expire on Dec. 31, 2020.

“At this time it can not be predicted if any extension might be approved,” Sadler wrote in the memo. “The expiration of this leave will place employees in a position of using PTO or taking unpaid leave in the event of a needed isolation or quarantine period.”

For situations covered under the FFCRA but when the employee is well-enough to work remotely, the SPASD has offered that opportunity if their job responsibilities and available technology allowed it. This reduced an employee’s need to access FFCRA. However, employees with certain job responsibilities cannot effectively complete their job responsibilities remotely.

Sadler proposed the district extend a portion of the leave as a SPASD-sponsored benefit to allay concerns about isolation and quarantine before an effective vaccine is widely available through June 30, 2021.

Temporary District-Sponsored COVID-Related Leave would be applicable if an employee (permanent, limited term, or long-term status) is isolated due to a COVID-19 diagnosis or quarantined due to COVID-19 exposure.

When approved, up to 80 hours of leave could be accessed and would not be taken from the employee’s accumulated PTO amounts.

If the employee is subject to multiple quarantines, the 80 hours would renew for each required isolation / quarantine. “This ensures that all employees, regardless of their ability to work remotely, will receive continuity of pay despite the need to isolate / quarantine,” Sadler wrote.

Other provisions of the current FFCRA (i.e. childcare leave) are not included in the leave approved by the board.

Sadler said if another federal stimulus package is approved by Congress and signed by President Trump, the FFCRA would remain in place.

The board unanimously approved the Temporary District-Sponsored COVID leave by a thumbs up vote during the Nov. 9 meeting.

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