Back to school?

Board of education will consider return to in-person classes for K-2 students

At one point during last week’s meeting of the Mount Horeb Area School District, superintendent Steve Salerno stated something that is both inarguably true and applicable in nearly any situation in the year 2020: “I guarantee you this, mark my words, whatever we come up with is not going to be amenable to 100 percent of the folks, right?” he said. 

Salerno and other administrators have proposed bringing K-2 students back into school, on a limited basis, while also keeping open an entirely virtual learning pathway for anyone who prefers it. Whether that happens will ultimately be up to the board of education. Many parents in the district have expressed a desire for in-person classes to resume, while many teachers have indicated they would not feel safe. But those views are neither universally held, nor entirely clear cut in a time when COVID-19 changes people’s perceptions on an almost daily basis. 

“And so at this point … we just think that this is the most opportune time for us to continue to prepare for what we hope will eventually be our students’ return,” continued Salerno. 

“I would look forward to seeing your plan,” said school board president Rod Hise. “I think that, all things being equal to the extent that we can do our homework on the new case numbers, if the plan accounts for making this transition for our kids as healthy and as safe as possible, this is something that I can support – very, very, very strongly. I think it should be our priority, assuming all those things are true, to get our kids back in the classroom where they belong.”

Salerno said administrators were well aware of the gravity of the situation when they began considering a return to in-person school for younger students. 

“I want to assure you that I did not make this recommendation in the dark,” said Salerno. “I continually consulted with key players within the organization to ask, Are we ready to evolve? Is this our opportunity? Can we get to a ‘yes’ on this? And I think … everyone has agreed, [everyone] with whom I spoke … that now is the time for us to evolve to the next step.” 

But he also cautioned that figuring out what, exactly, the next step should be in this “evolution” will prove difficult. 

“I think at this point I’d like to go slow to go fast,” he stated. 

Salerno said one key piece of the puzzle will be determining exactly how many families wish to have their K-2 students return to the classroom. It is likely that, at least initially, they would attend school in-person two days per week, as was proposed in a hybrid leaning model that was approved and later scuttled by the school board earlier this year. Salerno added that families who do not feel safe sending their children to school will continue to receive full online support. 

“I think the very first thing we need to find out is what percentage of our families wish to continue in the virtual realm, because we want to honor them and make sure that they get what they need,” he said. 

Salerno said he also needs to know what other information the board will require in order to make an informed decision, possibly early next week.

“What do you need to see from this team, for us to get to a ‘yes’ on this?  What data, what information, what questions need to be answered in your mind in order for us to move in the right direction?” he said. 

School board director Leah Lipska questioned how a return to school might work, logistically, while maintaining online courses as well. 

“So, if my kid has teacher X, is teacher X only doing virtual or is that teacher now doing virtual and in-person?” Lipska said. “Would my kids switch teachers? What would that look like? I don’t have a sense of that.”

School board director Kimberly Sailor said she wants teachers and other staff members to inform the final decision. 

“So far I’m hearing you say that you’ve consulted key leaders in the district and I really just want to make sure that we do all of our staff justice this time and collect all of their input because they’re really all key leaders right now, they’re all working with our students right now, especially in the virtual format, so when these proposals come I really hope that it reflects the full opinion of everyone.”

“Rest assured, though, Kimberly, we will not get 100 percent of our staff to support whatever plan we come in with, and at the end of the day - as I know you know so well - the needs of our students must guide where we’re moving and I think we can get to a ‘yes’ with those staff members who have health conditions, we can continue to work with them, or [with teachers who] have loved ones who have serious health conditions. We can continue to hopefully work with them in order to ensure that we have a comprehensive plan that honors as many people as possible.”

School board director Diana Rothamer questioned what the district plans to do “if there’s an outbreak.” 

“What happens then? Does the whole class switch to virtual? Is there some sort of contact tracing that takes place, you know certain people and adjoining room? I don’t know, [but] that’s a question I would like answered.”

The school board could vote as early as Monday on whether or not to begin allowing in-person classes at the start of the second quarter. 

During the time allotted for citizen comments, James Myers asked the board to consider a return to in-person curriculum. 

“We cannot forget that the immediate goal of all stakeholders should be to get some of these students in the classroom as soon as possible,” Myers stated. “Why are we waiting and what are we waiting for?”

“It’s time to take a stance and stop playing defense,” continued Myers. “I strongly urge you to consider allowing K-2 to return to school immediately. I fear that if this board procrastinates any further there will be many unintended consequences, such as diminishing mental health of students and community members, declining enrollment due to the current situation, being unable to be sustainable long-term for working parents, along with students not being prepared for their futures as they would be if they were in class.”

“It’s time to stop taking an all-or-nothing approach and let’s work together on a sustainable compromise,” he concluded.

The other citizen comment came from Kristin Oines. While she did not address a return to in-person class, she did ask the board to consider allowing teachers to continue teaching virtual classes primarily from home, rather than increasing the number of hours they are required to be in the classroom. 

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Mount Horeb, WI

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