When students attending Waterloo public schools leave the buildings Dec. 22 for winter break, it will be several weeks before they return to the facilities after the Waterloo School Board on Monday approved having all grades begin 2021 online. In-person learning would resume no sooner than Jan. 19, 2021.

Administration put a set of proposals for returning to the classroom after winter break ends on Jan. 4 – move all of PreK-12 to remote instruction for the two weeks following holiday break, move all PreK-12 students to virtual instruction through the end of February, or continue to offer the hybrid model when classes resume after break.

According to the board packet, the decision to implement all online learning for after break allows for the potential spread of COVID-19 at Christmas to be managed and have all students return to in-person learning after the standard two-week quarantine period.

“While Waterloo can be proud of being successful to this point, we know cases have risen and will probably be compounded by yet another holiday break and family gatherings,” Superintendent Brian Henning wrote in the board packet. “It feels a bit reckless not to take into consideration the many factors that point towards a difficult time in the pandemic coming after Christmas.”

The board ultimately decided on having two-weeks of remote learning before students return to in-person learning.

Some members expressed wanting schools to be open the first day after winter break. Karen Stangler and Deb Stein voted in favor of allowing students back in the buildings beginning Jan. 4.

Stein said families have the choice whether to send their children to school or have them learning remotely.

“Many parents want the chance for their kids to go to school and see other kids,” she said, adding the negative impact to children’s mental health by not attending school and seeing their peers.

Board Vice President Nancy Thompson vehemently disagreed with the opinion. She was aware of how much students want to see their peers but “sometimes we get disappointments in life and that’s part of living.”

“I cannot in good conscious, based on everything I read in the paper and see on TV and hear from people; to not recognize the tremendous urgency,” Thompson said. “To pretend what is happening out there with 4,000 people that have already died from this and we’re headed into probably a worst time yet with the holiday break coming.”

Board member Jim Setz also added his concerns about staff being exposed to the virus after students return to the building immediately following break after possibly going on vacation or taking part in large gatherings.

One major component of the conversation was if athletics should be suspended while the students are attending virtually for the first two weeks in January. However, the board chose to not making changes to the sports schedules.

“If it’s unsafe for students to be in school together then why is it safe to have sports,” board member Kate Lewandowski asked.

Board President Matt Schneider believed this was a separate conversation and also pointed out the public was not aware that discussion would be happening. He would anticipate a lot of public input if the board were to consider suspending sports while the district shifted to all virtual instruction from Jan. 4-15.

High school closes for the week

The district announced via its website on Friday that due to three confirmed coronavirus cases at the high school, students would shift to virtual learning from Dec. 14-18. This is the second time the school has closed due to COVID-19; the elementary and intermediate/middle schools have both moved to all-remote instruction at one point because it reached the three-positive case threshold set by the district.

Henning said the district is also watching for more possible positive cases among the high school during the next several days. If additional COVID-19 cases are confirmed, the school may need to stay with remote instruction through the two days of instruction before holiday break.

According to Henning, there have been 21 confirmed coronavirus cases in grades PreK-6 this school year and 14 COVID-19 cases in grades 7-12. He mentioned some of those cases were among students who attend virtually. Due to the number of confirmed cases, 97 children across PreK-12 were required to quarantine due to close contact with a confirmed case, with 55 of those in grades PreK-6.

Eight adult staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 so far this school year and 17 were required to quarantine.

Additionally, roughly 60 staff members have taken the emergency coronavirus leave for a total of about 300 days.

“It’s been very significant and it can be anything from quarantining, to staying home taking care of their children because schools are out, having COVID themselves, etc.,” Henning said.

The superintendent reminded the board the emergency coronavirus leave ends Dec. 31 and the district may have to evaluate how this will impact staff.

Other board action:

• Approved hiring Todd Forman as a technology support staff and Susan Gould as District Business Manager. The board also accepted the resignation of Connie Dettmer effective Dec. 31.

• Approved having Elizabeth Gould serve as Curriculum Director and PreK-4 Principal effective Jan. 25. The retirement of High School Principal Brad Donner and transition of Shawn Bartelts to that position has resulted in some administrative restructuring. The entire administrative team will cover the intermediate/middle school for the remainder of the year.

• Approved an early graduation for junior Keona Lahti; she has already met the criteria for graduating Waterloo High School and is looking to start pre-med college courses as soon as possible.

• Approved the middle school curriculum modifications and course guide.

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