Waunakee’s board of education set a target date for reopening its intermediate, middle school and high school this week. Members said the practicality of it depends on community efforts.

Jan. 26 has been targeted as the return date for 5-12 students and their resumption of in-person learning.

To meet that goal, the board agreed at its Nov. 9 meeting that local COVID rates would need to decrease significantly over the next two months, citing the 40 active cases among 5-12 students.

“If we bring them in, we risk losing K-4 because we’d be so overwhelmed that we’d have to shut the whole district down, like we’ve seen other districts do around us,” president Dave Boetcher said. “That’s the problem with having too high of a community rate. You will lose those classes.”

Boetcher said he’s hopeful the community will step up mitigation efforts in time to allow its 5-12 students back in the classroom for second semester, which has a start date of Jan. 26.

Board members suggested metrics from the end of September be used a target for that to happen.

According to data published on the district’s website, only three students had tested positive for COVID-19 at the time. Waunakee’s burden rate was less than a third of the current number.

“If the threshold is what it is today, I don’t see how we can do it,” director Mark Hetzel said. “So whatever day we pick, my mind and my heart tells me it is in pencil – not in ink. It has to balance the reality of the disease in the Waunakee area and our operational capacity to deal with it.”

Hetzel motioned that start of second semester (Jan. 26) be the target date for transitioning to in-person hybrid learning at the 5-12 grade level, contingent on a decrease in local COVID activity.

The motioned passed by a 6-0 vote, due to board member Jack Heinemann’s absence from the Nov. 9 meeting.

Administrators said the hybrid-learning model will look different for each upper-level building. Intermediate students would have a schedule identical to that in place at the elementary schools.

“When we go to AM/PM (cohorts),” intermediate principal Tim Mommaerts said, “the student who chose in-person would have two and a half hours of live time with the teacher. And then they’d be doing their asynchronous work while the teacher is with another group of students.”

Mommaerts noted that the switch would actually result in less face-to-face time with instructors, as the 5-6 remote-learning model currently allows for four hours of “live time” with teachers.

Board members asked whether the same would be true of middle- and high-school classes.

Middle-school principal Jeff Kenas said 7-8 students would see no loss of instructional time, because classes would include both in-person and at-home learners, thanks to videoconferencing.

“The amount of time that you would be spending with a teacher would still be the same,” Kenas said. “We’re still going to be in class for 35-40 minutes per period, like we are right now. Just, half of the kids are going to be in-person and the other half are going to be coming in virtually.”

Director Brian Hoefer asked whether students streaming in could communicate with the teacher.

“That’s the goal,” Kenas said. “We’re probably not going to know how well that works until we actually start doing it. I think the trick in navigating a chunk of kids in one model, and another chunk of kids in a different model at the same time is that we haven’t really done that before.”

An instructor at UW-Whitewater, Hoefer noted that teaching in-person students and synchronous learners at the same time could be a challenging feat for the district’s middle-school teachers.

He cited his own experience with the blended model, describing it as “extremely difficult.”

Board members asked administrators how instructional time would be affected at the high school. Principal Brian Borowski said 9-12 students would see an increase in their hours of instruction.

“We’re actually adding to them,” Borowski said. “Classes will be 50 minutes long, opposed to 45. The one thing we are pulling out, though, is the contact time during the school day. That’s going later, after the kids have left… So the minutes are the same, or a little more.”

Director of Curriculum Tim Schell said substitute teachers’ availability could be a limiting factor for reopening.

“We might end up finding ourselves in the deep end all of a sudden on subs,” Schell said. “That could have a ripple effect across all of our schools, and run the risk of dragging everything down.”

Board members directed administration to begin planning for the transition.

Also at the Nov. 9 meeting, the school board:

- Viewed the official results of the Nov. 3 referendum, which passed by 3414 votes

- Approved low-risk winter athletics

- Approved medium- to high-risk winter athletics, with competition beginning Jan. 11

- Approved a refund of $50 fee per student for K-4 families who opted for in-person learning

- Authorized administration to pursue modifications to the high-school fieldhouse

- Approved administration’s request to submit a waiver of DPI requirements for Educator Effectiveness (EE)

- Appointed Attorney Jon Anderson as the district’s expulsion-hearing officer

- Congratulated three girls golfers who were named to the academic all-state team

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