School board narrowly votes down proposal to allow K-2 students back

The Mount Horeb Area Board of Education voted Monday night against a proposal that would have allowed some K-2 students to return to local classrooms. The decision came after hours of testimony and discussion, during which nearly every parent who spoke - some through tears - pleaded with the board to allow in-person learning to resume. At the same meeting, the board reviewed surveys that showed most teachers are not comfortable allowing children to return, and many would consider taking leave through the federal CARES Act if they did so.

Near the end of the meeting, board supervisors Rod Hise, Jeff Hanna and Dani Michels voted in a favor of a motion, which was made my Michels, to allow K-2 students to return at the start of the second quarter. Supervisors Leah Lipska, Kimberly Sailor, Jessica Arrigoni and Diana Rothamer voted against the plan, saying they will not support a return to the classroom until positive cases of the COVID-19 virus across Dane County are less than half of what they are right now.

Public Health of Madison & Dane County’s current recommendations allow K-2 students return to the classroom, but a plan previously approved by the local school board sets markers - including positive tests and multiple other factors - for a return that have not yet been met.

At the heart of the debate, was disagreement over which is more harmful: the risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus or requiring young children to learn almost entirely on a screen, from home.

Hanna voiced frustration, suggesting the district allow K-2 students and some of their older counterparts to return to the classroom. “Everybody’s suffering enough already,” he stated.

The vote came after a similarly tight decision just before the start of the school year, in which the board changed course and voted 4-3 to cancel a plan it had previously approved to allow both “virtual” and “hybrid” learning options for all students this fall.

On Monday of this week, Lipska, Sailor and Arrigoni said they oppose deviating from a subsequent plan the board approved after its decision to scuttle the hybrid model it put in place earlier this year. That new plan set the several markers that the board wants to see met before students return.

“I’m all for bringing kids back if we hit everything in our plan,” said Lipska.

“We have a plan that we approved,” stated Arrigoni. 

School board president Rod Hise said he doubts the district will be able to meet many of those markers in the forseeable future.

“When are we ever going to get to those [numbers]?” he said.

“It’s going to be impossible to get to that; … it’s totally unattainable,” Hise continued. 

Michels said she regretted voting for the parameters that are currently keeping young children home. “It was a mistake,” she said. “I admit that.”

Their discussion and vote came near the end of a meeting that stretched to more than three and a half hours. While a single parent told the board virtual learning was “going well” in her home, parent after parent called in to the meeting to express their despair at having young children tethered to laggy, glitchy and impersonal technology. Several said they are troubled by their children’s mental health and isolation as the pandemic drags on. One father who spoke showed the board a photograph of his young daughter weeping after being kicked out of her virtual classroom “once again.”

Prior to Monday’s vote, district administrators unveiled a plan that showed some early glimpses of what a return to in-person classes would look like, if approved.

While the school board disagreed on what action to take, there were several key facts upon which nearly everyone was in agreement.

Five district staff members have tested positive for the coronavirus so far this year.

Recent polls showed the vast majority of teachers would not be comfortable allowing children back into their classrooms, and 24 teachers indicated they would or might leave if asked to do so.

While there was ample confusion on this point at first, Public Health of Madison & Dane County currently recommends that K-2 students have live instruction, according to Salerno.

Public health officials have told the district they are not seeing large outbreaks of the virus in K-2 classrooms, he added. 

The vast majority of families in the district want a live option, according to the feedback the district had.

Nearly everyone wants a virtual pathway to remain in place for those who are not comfortable returning to the classroom in person.

There have been 107 cumulative cases of COVID-19 in Mount Horeb this year. The village’s population is 7,443. The board was in disagreement about which metrics are best to use for measuring the threat, ranging from positive tests to hospitalizations. 

Multiple teachers cautioned that if in-person instruction resumes, it will almost certainly not look or feel anything like what young students were used to during the pre-pandemic period. Children would be spaced far apart, prohibited from touching each other or drinking from water fountains, and they would be unable to take part in many activities. “I won’t be able to hug them,” said kindergarden teacher Ambriel Chamberlain, whose embraces were the highlight of the day for some of her students last year.

Nearly everyone who spoke lauded educators for their efforts to implement online curriculum. They agreed teachers have gone above and beyond what could be expected of them, but added that they feel virtual learning simply cannot work – and might actually do more harm than good -  for young students. Many spoke about depression, fear and fatigue, while others questioned how many months or years the board will prevent students from attending school in person, if the virus persists. 

“Virtual learning does not work for our children,” stated Kristen Dresen, a parent.

“This virus is not going anywhere and we can’t just leave our kids behind,” she added.

“My girls used to love school, and when they got home from school they would quickly start to play school,” she said, taking a moment to wipe tears from her eyes. “They are grieving the loss of school.”

While an anonymous polls of teachers showed most would not feel safe having children return to the classroom even if the district’s markers are met, several teachers spoke at Monday’s meeting about logistical questions that would need to be answered if a hybrid model were put back into place. “We love your children,” they stated. 

Tracy Lange, a second grade teacher, called COVID “horrible.” “Yuck,” she said. “I hate it.”

But Lange added that teachers are concerned about being exposed to the virus.

“Of course we are worried about our health,” she stated.

While most of the parents who spoke praised teachers, Allison Gundrum, a high school student, said she was “troubled by the way that people are talking about teachers.”

Several families said that by prohibiting in-person school, the board is not eliminating the risk of exposure; it is simply pushing it off onto the grandparents, daycare providers, friends and extended family who are currently being forced to care for young children while their parents work.

Sarah Wells, a parent, said her family was forced by the closure of local classrooms to spend $800 per month on childcare.

“I am very worried about both of my children’s mental health,” she told the board.

“I am asking you to step up … because people are breaking down,” she said.

When Wells apologized to the board for breaking into tears while speaking, superintendent Steve Salerno replied: “Never apologize about being emotional about the love you have for your kids.”

While the board voted down the proposal to restart live instruction for K-2 students, it also took up and unanimously approved a motion to direct staff to begin working toward re-opening if and when the markers in the previously approved re-opening plan are met.

A group of parents confirmed Tuesday morning that they were planning to gather signatures to recall Lipska. 

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Mount Horeb, WI

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