When it came right down to it, the July 27 decision over whether the Sun Prairie Area School District was going to start the 2020-21 school year online was never really the Sun Prairie School Board’s to make.
According to Sun Prairie School Board President Steve Schroeder, the decision to start the school year online was always operational, which means that it’s the decision of the district administrative team to make — just like it was the team’s decision to close schools when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in mid-March.
“This school board . . . we operate at the policy level,” Schroeder told the administrative team and all members of the Sun Prairie School Board in attendance at the three hour and 52 minute Zoom meeting on Monday, July 27.
Because the board operates at the policy level, and the administrative team handles operations, it was actually the team’s decision. That decision was announced last week as a recommendation to the board in a July 20 press release, but it may have seemed confusing to the public who could have believed their comments would influence the board’s decision making.
Schroeder said the district received more than 50 public comments (read them all with the online version of this story at sunprairiestar.com). He said there was no way all of them could be read during the meeting. “We would be here literally for hours to do so,” Schroeder told the board.
Many of the comments resembled Michael Rodgers’ written comments to the board.
“For my family, our desire is to continue virtual classrooms indefinitely, until a vaccine is made widely available,” Rodgers wrote.
Others resembled Andy Johnson, a father of a family of four who wanted to see kids back in schools in Sun Prairie.
“We want to send our kids to school. We have weighed the risks of the disease with the risks of staying away from the disease and want the high quality education Sun Prairie has to offer in-person,” Johnson wrote.
“It is ironic that my opposing opinion of the Sun Prairie Schools Administration decision to offer only distance non-learning is expressed in a school board distance non-public meeting,” wrote Bristol resident Joseph Rundahl.
“I implore you to do everything in your power to significantly improve the virtual education from what was offered last spring and consider offering small group classroom and extracurricular activities in person, safely, by using our massive taxpayer-funded school district infrastructure . . . and protecting our students and staff with PPE,” wrote Julia Schelpfeffer.
Joe Hopper said the community has not received any explanation about why the virtual-only option was chosen, or what it will take to reopen schools. “I realize it was a difficult decision but I ask for better communication moving forward to help the community understand and plan for the future,” Hopper wrote.
The Sun Prairie Education Association Executive Team wrote to the board to ask for some flexibility in any decision requiring teachers to be in school buildings.
“The Sun Prairie Education Association stands for quality education,” the team wrote in its letter. “We intend to provide such instruction virtually this fall, cognizant of the social-emotional well-being of our students and teachers. We cannot deliver such instruction without supporting Sun Prairie teachers in a gradual transition into school buildings.”
Decision? Not really
During the presentation about the potential options facing the Sun Prairie Area School District to begin instruction this fall, Director of Student Policy & School Operations Nick Reichhoff said there was not much of a choice.
Guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control described the social distancing requirements and that it would not be possible to instruct large student populations four days per week because of a lack of space.
Reichhoff said guidance for public school spaces is forthcoming; until then, the existing rules of no more than 10 people in a confined space remains in place. That means schools would not be able to accommodate six feet of social distancing — that’s 15-16 students per class — which he said is not feasible for in-person instruction.
He also described what might happen if one of the students in a classroom is exposed to the COVID-19 virus. It would be an immediate 14 day quarantine for any classroom, with all families in the classroom notified and a quarantine order issued for everyone in the family for 14 days.
“I think that’s important,” Reichhoff said, “because there would be no warning.”
It also very likely that schools would close without warning, which was a main concern of parents who took the survey.
Reichhoff also outlined different variations of the same scenario, including one where two different students in the same class test positive and the same class would have to quarantine for 14 days.
That challenges the hybrid model of in-person instruction for two days a week and online for the rest of the week. And, Public Health Madison Dane County (PHMDC) is not ready to say if schools in the county could reopen.
“So this uncertainty,” Reichhoff said, “really makes distance learning a much more viable option.”
SPASD Assistant Superintendent for Teaching, Learning & Equity Stephanie Leonard-Witte said the following changes will be made beginning this fall:
• Students will have greater live synchronous instruction, meaning that teachers will be delivering that instruction from classrooms;
• Attendance will be taken;
• A-F letter grades will be assigned for students in grades 8-12 and a 1-4 number grade for students in grades 4K-7; and
• The SPASD will also offer small group learning with social distancing and infection mitigation strategy.
Leonard-Witte said SPASD staff will be required to return to work Aug. 24 to prepare for distance learning, which will begin Sept. 8.
The school schedule is Monday, Tuesday, Thursday Friday — 8 a.m.-1 p.m., when staff members will work on-site for five hours. Any remaining time may be used to work remotely or for outreach.
On Wednesdays, all staff may work remotely with no requirement for synchronous instruction. Staffers could work on-site with permission from the building administrator.
In addition to painstakingly reviewing each of the steps taken to reach the recommendation, SPASD Superintendent Brad Saron offered his contact information and emphasized that if the order is given, distance learning is the best option available for the district to pivot to in-person classroom instruction beyond the first quarter.
“Perhaps the name of the game for everything we’re doing is flexibility,” remarked Sun Prairie School Board Vice President Tom Weber. He said he is sensitive to working parents but the same goes for teachers working in the buildings with young kids at home.
When talking about potentials for staff leave, how does the SPASD provide coverage for all students, address kids who are on different schedules because of parental work schedules, and how does instruction look at a daycare, Weber asked.
Saron said those were among the myriad competing factors the SPASD administrative team examined in formulating the recommendation.
Sun Prairie Community Schools Director Jamie Racine said she is meeting with community partners next week to see what daycare options are available, and which providers will be expanding options to meet demand.
“I know this is a decision for the administration and not for the board . . . but I have concerns,” remarked Sun Prairie School Board Governance Officer Dave Hoekstra. He said he concerned about students with IEPs, and students who are English Language Learners (ELL), as well as single parent households and parents who can’t work from home.
“I worry about those kids and getting them proper support in the distance learning environment,” Hoekstra said.
Some kids just don’t respond in distance learning because they need connections, he said.
“Does a distance learning one-size-fits-all approach serve every child every day?” Hoekstra asked, referring to the district’s “Every Child Every Day” slogan. “I’m concerned about that.”
Hoekstra also pointed out many districts such as Janesville are opening and giving parents the choice to have instruction be in person.
“I respect the decision,” Hoekstra said, adding that he was happy to hear there will be small group support at the schools. He said he hopes to support more kids through in person instruction as the COVID-19 condition improves in the county.
“My biggest struggle with distance learning was not having that live learning,” remarked Sun Prairie School Board member Sara Rhoads. She said working in the classroom allows students to work alongside the teacher to see how problems are solved or solutions are reached. But she also said safety should be a top priority with any decision.
“Believe it or not, I’m following along with what Dave is saying,” board member Marilyn Ruffin told the board, adding that the distance learning decision will not work for everyone. She said she remains concerned about SPASD black and brown students who are behind already.
Many people in the emails brought up the 8 to 1 schedule, said board member Carol Albright. “I want us to be really, really flexible in our thinking,” Albright tole the board.
When he read through the comments, Schroeder said he saw a few themes and one of them is flexibility and one of the ways was not allowing them to be in the building on Wednesdays. “I personally think that’s fair,” he said.
“Something came up about trust,” Schroeder said, adding that it’s not that the board members don’t trust staff, it’s about this is the best way to teach kids.
Schroeder said he also saw comments about requiring teachers to be in the building “just to be in the building.”
He said he has a hard time believing that teaching can be done better at home than it can be done in the classroom. He also said he noted a common theme from parents: We must do better, have more staff engagement and assessment of learning.
“I have no doubt,” Schroeder added, “that we’re going to be able to do that.”