In a contentious 4-3 vote, the Waunakee school board decided early Tuesday morning that instruction will remain virtual for the first quarter of the 2020-21 school year.

The decision came at the end of a July 27 meeting which lasted more than 7 hours.

Following consideration of various instructional models, the majority of board members agreed that an “enhanced remote learning” option would be the most feasible scenario to begin the year.

“Starting with enhanced remote has a lot of merit,” Director Joan Ensign said. “We have to get that remote-learning model solid, because things will be uncertain throughout the whole year… I just feel we’re going to be offering a better education for our kids if we give that model support.”

Director of Curriculum Tim Schell noted that the model will be an improvement from the spring.

“That’s why we call it ‘enhanced,’” Schell said. “Our whole approach to remote learning will be much more focused on accessing the whole curriculum – more rigor, more synchronous instruction, more interaction between students and teachers – all to engender greater learning.”

Schell explained that the model would involve teachers providing instruction from their classrooms, and offer opportunities for small-group instruction to be delivered virtually.

It would also include options for in-person attendance, to address specific curricular needs.

“We’ve talked about making sure that we really enhance this from our emergency remote teaching in the spring,” said assistant director of instruction Amy Johnson. “A lot of the feedback we’ve gotten is that families want our curriculum and our teachers in synchronous instruction.”

Dissenting board members pointed to other feedback that the district had received.

Two surveys were sent to parents over the summer – one in June, the other in July – soliciting their feedback on instructional delivery models under consideration by the school district.

In both, the overwhelming majority supported a face-to-face or hybrid model of instruction.

“This is a really one-sided decision,” Vice President Mike Brandt said. “And we’re supposed to be representing the community. If we can find a way to get people back to in-person at some level… That’s what the community wants.”

Director Jack Heinemann agreed, citing the dozens of parents who had expressed support for in-person learning during the public-comment portion of the meeting.

“The community has spoken pretty loudly as far as getting their kids back to school,” Heinemann said. “It’s been mentioned several times, in several of the writings that we had, that kids like structure. And I think getting back in a classroom provides them that structure.”

In the end, those in favor of face-to-face instruction would fall a vote short.

Board members Mark Hetzel, Joan Ensign, Brian Hoefer and clerk Judy Engebretson – all former educators – held the majority in a 4-3 decision to start the school year virtual.

“A lot of teachers have real concerns about going back,” Engebretson said, “for health but also just for the delivery model. I look at who’s going to be delivering this, and I think we need to make sure that they have all the pieces in place to do that – and to do a good job.”

The motion by retired Waunakee teacher Mark Hetzel stipulated that instruction would transition to a hybrid model for the second quarter, which is slated to begin on Nov. 5.

The school district issued a press release Tuesday morning, including the following statement:

“We know that there are many details yet to be worked out for all the selected instructional models. The health and safety of our students, staff, and families are of utmost importance. We continue to be grateful for the support and understanding of our community.”

Also at the July 27 meeting, the school board:

- Accepted a committee recommendation that the district withhold access to school facilities by outside groups, and that the decision be reviewed at its Sept. 14 meeting.

- Approved a motion to hold an additional board meeting on Aug. 3 to discuss the fate of fall co-curricular activities.

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