The first day of school for students attending Marshall public schools could look a lot different from previous years. No one will be sitting at their classroom desks when the first bell rings or eating in the cafeteria during lunch. Instead, children will log in using a digital device while their teacher stands in a classroom devoid of students.

This is the plan being proposed by Marshall School District administration – beginning the new year completely virtually. The school board approved having the district create a plan for starting the year virtually at its July 22 meeting.

Superintendent Dan Grady said the district’s reopening committee looked at several models for delivering instruction – traditional in-person instruction that offers a full virtual option for parents who did not want to send their child to the school, a hybrid where once health metrics were met students in early childhood through sixth grade would attend in person while being spread out among three buildings with grades 7-12 at the high school with an alternate day schedule, or full virtual for all students.

“I’m sure the board will agree with the admin and (Marshall Education Association) that safety, educating kids and bringing back our most vulnerable kids first are the to dos,” the superintendent said.

When Wisconsin school districts were forced to close beginning March 13, staff needed to quickly learn how to best remotely provide instruction without too many guidelines on how to do so effectively.

Parents were asked to respond to an online survey to let the district know what families thought what did and did not work during virtual learning. Grady said the feedback was used to find solutions to issues with online instruction.

“They have been working to improve how to craft virtual teaching,” he said.

However, it is the administration’s intention and desire to have traditional in classroom instruction once it is safe to do so.

“This will look very different than the spring,” said Marshall Elementary School Principal Kathy Kennon.

According to her, there will be clear expectations set out for students and parents and the district will provide a very structured online instruction experience.

“Spring learning was making sure we gave kids opportunities to learn. It was the best we could do in a moment’s notice,” the principal said.

Board Vice President Paul Wehking said when thinking about the district’s most vulnerable learners – whom Grady said included students with specially designed education plans and students who struggle with virtual learning.

The superintendent said this is why administration is suggesting bringing those students, including early childhood through sixth grade back to in-person instruction first when it is safe for children to return to the buildings first.

“It’s not that we don’t care about our 7-12 students, but they are more self-sufficient learners,” Grady said.

Unlike the majority of districts in the state, the Marshall School District needs to abide by the mandates laid out by Public Health Madison & Dane County (PHMDC), which will guide decisions on when in-person instruction can commence.

Before buildings open, the district will need to ensure safety measures and policies are in place, such as the use of personal protective equipment, social distancing, transportation and sanitizing, said Business Manager Bob Chady.

“By starting the school year virtually and having teachers and staff in the building, we can do some training and professional development to answer those questions,” he said.

As for teachers, they would be expected to deliver instruction from their respective physical classrooms. Grady said this is not something that has been brought before the instructional staff yet. Staff would be asked to implement the training received during professional development set for this summer and communicate with families by the start of this week to share the metrics being used for reopening the district’s schools.

“We need to work on policies and prepare our facilities,” Grady said.

Staff speak favorably about virtual start of year

During the meeting, eight district teachers spoke in favor of beginning the year virtually. The Marshall Education Association (MEA) had sent an open letter to the board (printed on page A4) requesting a virtual start and laid out what other steps it would like the district to take. These include committing to 100% virtual education through the first quarter or until Dane County metrics of fewer than four new cases per day averaged during a 14-day period are met, shared and transparent decision-making process, comprehensive set of policies and procedures for reopening that incorporate Public Health Madison & Dane County guidelines, a full-time nurse in the district with a health assistant in every building, and a clearly written health policy on how to handle employees and students diagnosed with coronavirus.

First grade teacher Karan Bliske said the school year will not be normal, no matter how instruction is delivered.

“I keep hearing through social media that kids need socialization, routine and normalcy,” she said. “We need to be very honest about what school is going to look like.”

Bliske listed what in-person instruction could look like for students: desks located six feet apart, being unable to choose a desk located where it best fits their learning needs, no hugging or high fives, no story time or morning meetings gathered on the community carpet, no partner or small group work, not sharing anything, no eating in the cafeteria, and more.

“We all want to be with the kids but how we’ll do it with these restrictions remains a mystery to me,” she said.

Gina Jorgensen, who teachers high school and middle school choir, agreed with Bliske that things will not be normal. The choir teacher said there is no training or curriculum available on how to teach during a pandemic.

“We feel like we can’t educate the whole child if we’re constantly worried with safety issues with our students and the possibility of us as teachers facing a lawsuit for doing the wrong thing or even becoming ill to the point where we can’t teach,” Jorgensen said.

She said this brings out a multitude of questions on how teachers can teach and students can learn face-to-face without the possibility of contracting COVID-19. Jorgensen said among the unanswered safety questions are: will masks be required? Who will ensure masks are worn? What about those who are unable to wear masks? Will the district pay staff and students’ masks or will it be the responsibilities of individuals and families to provide their own? Will temperatures be taken before people are allowed in the buildings and what will be the protocol?

A pair of parents also addressed the board during public comment, both saying it would be best to use remote learning to kick off the 2020-2021 year. Crista Brickl had the same concerns about reopening as Bliske and Jorgensen expressed. The parent hated the idea of taking her son away from the in-person school experience that he enjoys so much, but knows he does not need the burden of knowing he could transmit coronavirus if he is asymptomatic.

Parent Alexandra Huff said the district should use the remainder of July and all of August to plan to ensure the remote learning experience will be positive for all students.

Board President Debbie Frigo said while those who spoke during public comment were entirely supportive of going virtual, she knew parents and staff who were in favor of returning to in-person classes.

“It’s important to hear the voice of the whole community,” she said, adding there are parents who have already or will soon need to return to their place of employment and struggling to obtain childcare. “Some say they can’t afford all virtual learning.”

Frigo referred to the recent decision of the Janesville School District where parents and staff are allowed to decide if they will return to in-person instruction. Parents who want to keep their children at home and staff who would prefer to teach virtually are allowed to do so while those who want to attend or teach in person are able to.

“That seems more equitable, but I’m not sure it’s the safest method,” the board president said.

Board member Eric Armstrong suggested the district look at methods being used in Minnesota where students in grades K-6 who would not have available adult supervision during the school day would come to a district building, which would be staffed by adults who would serve in a supervisory position only. The children would attend school virtually during that time.

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