Pandemic practice

Waunakee choir students practice outdoors while wearing masks this spring. The pandemic taught administrators, educators families how to approach learning differently.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, when health guidelines closed schools, teachers and administrators were forced to implement remote learning models. As the world began to reopen, so did schools. Yet some families have found remote learning to be a better fit for a number of reasons.

Last winter, as Waunakee school administrators began to plan for the 2021-22 year, offering a robust remote learning model along with in-person instruction became a possibility. It was one option the school board directed administrators to explore.

“At that point, it was really intended to focus on, not knowing exactly what parents’ desires were going to be, not knowing where the pandemic was going to be for fall, and wanting to make sure that we were prepared to have this option available for parents,” Guttenberg said.

The district has had a remote option for the secondary level students available for several years through the Wisconsin eSchool Network to meet students’ individual needs.

A committee was formed this winter and brought a plan to the district not only for the post-pandemic time but well into the future. The curriculum directors -- Amy Johnson for grades K-6, and Tim Schell for 7-12 – spoke about the results of that work.

One model pursued included a fully remote section with a teacher if 15 students per grade level were interested.

“As a result of our pre-registration level we don’t have enough students to implement that model,” Johnson said about the elementary- through intermediate-school students.

Pre-registration was due June 1. When the Tribune spoke with district administrators June 3, just seven families at the K-6 level showed an interest in enrolling their children in remote learning.

“So we can’t obviously have a fully remote section for that,” she said.

Those families will have the ability to enroll in the Wisconsin eSchool Network, or WEN next year. Johnson said these are national curriculum classes taught with an asynchronous model. A Waunakee teacher would provide feedback. Those online classes would require a great deal of parent support, she added. The teacher would offer grading and feedback rather than direct instruction.

At the secondary level, the district is seeing more interest but still not enough to warrant a remote section per grade.

“There is a certain level of need, and we’re happy to have the opportunity to serve,” the grades 7-12 curriculum director said. Schell said at that grade level, about 23 students had indicated an interest.

Those students, too, can enroll in WEN course packages.

Already, the committee is identifying the students and their course requests, Schell said, and Waunakee teachers are also being sought to facilitate the coursework. If no Waunakee teachers are interested, the district will reach out to the Wisconsin eSchool Network to see if teachers in the network are interested.

Waunakee was one of a number of districts across the state that formed the consortium to offer remote learning. Students opting for the model do so for a variety of reason, the administrators said.

Johnson said families in K-6 grades are concerned that elementary students may not be vaccinated by the fall.

Medical conditions are also a concern for students at the upper grade levels, as are individual learning preferences.

“We have some students, who in the process of things, found working from home, continuing their education in that manner, was a good fit for them personally,” Schell said.

With 4,300 students enrolled in the district, the overall numbers of families seeking a remote learning are small.

“But their needs are genuine,” Schell said.

At the start of the school year with remote learning, the district had lost approximately 80 students, but it has gained students as families moved to the district, administrators said. They will monitor enrollment throughout the year. Guttenberg said the pandemic led families to choose private schools where in-person learning was taking place; other families chose a virtual charter school.

“We’ve gained some of those students back,” Guttenberg said, adding as registration begins the number will be clear.

Offering online learning through WEN provides families an option to continue learning internally within their home district. If the Waunakee district did not offer it, families could open enroll their child in a charter school, and Waunakee would be required to pay the district $8,100 in state aid.

But, Schell said, when that occurs the district doesn’t necessarily lose $8,100 in expenses.

“Whether we look at refining our remote learning programs or not, we as district are financially responsible under state law for funding the remote learning option, no matter where our residents’ students go. So doing what we do, it’s not a case of the district taking on expenses that we could otherwise avoid,” Schell said.

Guttenberg said everyone in education is now taking stock of what the pandemic can teach.

“The remote learning piece? We never would have thought of implementing remote learning for all students all at once. That was never in our long-range plan,” Guttenberg said. “But certainly some of the things we learned from it…is that you have more districts saying this is sort of trend more families will resonate with.”

The Waunakee district, like many across the state, is beginning to look at how best to offer the option.

“I envision remote learning being something that remains post pandemic just to meet the needs of kids and families as we move forward,” Guttenberg said, adding the model has been used at the college level for some time.

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