Editor’s note: this is the introduction to a 14-page presentation Jefferson school Superintendent Mark Rollefson gave to the Jefferson school board on Monday outlining the process the district has taken to start planning for school reopening in the fall during the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.
JEFFERSON — Since March 2020, I have been quoted several times saying, “We are building a jet while the jet is already in flight.”
This continues to be the case. The rules keep changing and the guidelines keep refining. Scientific understanding of the coronavirus keeps improving. However, in spite of the scientific efforts, a keen eye must be used to discern between conflicting scientific messages. In some cases, the findings of one scientific study conflicts with another. Data and other information is ever growing and a moving target.
I literally had a conversation this past week wherein someone shared data with me, but they used a qualifying statement, “But remember, they said this data is already a week old and outdated.”
A week old … and outdated? I hate to think how outdated a 55-year-old might be. When one-week-old data is outdated, how do you not build the jet while it is in flight? How do we prepare to land? Can we land?
From the years 2000 through about 2015, I attended many conferences, workshops, and graduate courses. Many of these addressed the future of education. This past weekend as I prepared for (the) Monday, July 13 board of education update on the topic of reopening school for the fall of 2020, I had the disheartening awareness things are changing so rapidly that I may have to adjust my talk even as late as Monday afternoon. This is very unnerving for me.
This realization jogged my memory regarding some notes I took while at a conference.
I searched through my antiquated hard copy file folders from my antiquated metal file cabinet and found my scribblings.
At the very top of the sheet I had jotted a note to myself. It read, “Save this to see how accurate it is 10-plus years from now.” Here are some of my notes:
● In the 1800s and first half of the 1900s, the total amount of worldwide information doubled once per century. Soon, they say, total information will double every half-day.
● Children today are preparing for jobs that do not yet exist.
● We will need to learn, unlearn, and relearn as data influences our thinking.
● Information overload will result in the need to determine what is true and untrue. This task will be increasingly difficult.
● The speed of the internet, the access to information, and the ability to process this information will be more important than reading, writing, and math.
● Children of tomorrow will need to be more adaptable, more flexible, and must learn in multiple modalities.
● The influence of changing environments will be confusing to the human brain. Mental fatigue will result in more emotional setbacks and breakdowns.
● Collaborating teams will need to problem-solve, identify solutions, accept changing targets, undo solutions, and adapt with new solutions in short chunks of time with ever-changing sciences, evolving technologies, while balancing cultural needs and all while determining which (pieces of information they receive) through high-speed communication systems are even valid.
Well folks, I can confidently say we have arrived. We are here. We can blame COVID-19 if we want to, but even without the virus, the speed of information, the vastness of data, (and the pace of) rapidly changing scientific discoveries have influenced the craziness of the year 2020.
As a former science teacher, I have great respect for scientific inquiry and I understand the difference between theory and fact.
Much of the direction we are provided through reputable sources during this health pandemic is grounded in theory based on snapshot-in-time data.
Approaching 25 years as a principal or superintendent, the process of being able to express an opinion, to set up an argument, to defend a position, and to clarify a vision has given me and still gives me great joy. As a systems thinker, it is one of several aspects of leadership I have found most rewarding.
Generally, I feel much safer in experiencing a sense of control over an undefinable situation or circumstances compared to taking the risk of letting that situation control me.
We have large situations (plural) bombarding us: the COVID-19 virus, political tension, racial tension, hatred, and cultural warfare to name a few that are looming large.
While interacting with others, you can quickly ascertain whether today’s situations have pushed them over the edge or near the edge.
A quick and sharp tongue, expressing feelings of doom and gloom, pointing the finger at one group or the other, snap decisions and knee-jerk reactions generally indicate a person is deeply struggling.
I ask us all, however, to remain foundational on what has not changed. In this world there are absolutes. The core of teaching (and working in a school system) are ensconced in character traits and these have not changed. These are steadfast. We can hold on to these absolutes in order to feel some sense of normalcy, some resemblance of “things being the same.”
Those core attributes are patience, respect, civility, positive relationship building, kindness, caring, and an attitude of service. It may be more difficult for people to see the smile on our faces because of face coverings, but our actions can shine brilliantly.
With that backdrop, let me share the ever-changing landscape over the past few months. This then allows for others to understand why we still do not have a finalized plan to reopen in September.
March 13: School closure started.
March 27: Teachers and administrators crafted first-ever virtual learning system.
April 13: Determined how we were going to grade students.
April 26: Learned schools would be closed the rest of the year through June 30.
May: Determined the ifs/hows about summer school.
May: Determined and planned for a first-ever virtual graduation.
June 1: (The school board) adopted its own guiding principles document regarding decision-making per COVID-19.
June 10: The district received preliminary guidance from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction regarding opening schools in the fall.
Mid-June: Results come in from surveys of parents and staff.
● 90 percent of parents indicate desire to have their children back in school.
● 10 Percent desire a virtual setting.
● The vast majority indicated they do not want their children required to wear face masks. Nearly 40 pages of comments were shared regarding the controversial topic of face coverings, with overwhelming dissent (as) to the necessity of face coverings.
Surveys from neighboring districts indicated the same percentages of approximately 90 percent desiring to attend school face-to-face and people expressing a desire not to wear masks. These sentiments were even evident, but to a lesser percentage, from staff members.
June 16: School District of Jefferson Solutions Teams activated.
The high school, middle school, and all three elementary schools formed solutions teams. These teams, led by their principals had teachers, paraprofessionals, pupil services staff, administrative assistants, and others on their teams. Each elementary school had their own Solutions Team, but the three elementary schools also met jointly for uniform decision making indicating the need for some solidarity across the district. Additionally, food service and transportation each had a Solution Team.
My charge for these hard-working teams was to develop plans to reduce the potential spread of the COVID-19 virus, while also providing for quality education, student services, and extracurricular activities.
The members of each Solutions Team were informed that their time, knowledge, and creativity was appreciated, but they needed to understand they serve in an advisory capacity. The administrative team, the superintendent and, ultimately, the Board of Education, may override the Solutions Teams’ recommendations.
This approach of combining both top-down and bottom-up decision-making is consistent with what has made our district strong over the past years.
June 22: The Department of Public Instruction provided an updated document of guiding principles for schools to consider regarding opening the doors for the fall of 2020.
June 22: The School District of Jefferson Board of Education unanimously approved this statement, “The SDoJ will provide face-to-face instruction to students in grades 4K-12 starting the fall semester of 2020. This decision is contingent upon the prevalence of COVID-19 cases in Wisconsin and in Jefferson County and will be made in consultation with local and state health authorities. Specific plans regarding whether virtual options will be available, the schedule, the calendar, or hybrid models are yet to be determined. The enhanced health and safety practices to be implemented are continuing to be determined. The primary purpose of this action is to provide parents the knowledge that the SDoJ intends to provide face-to-face instruction the fall semester of 2020.”
June 23: Solutions Teams continued to meet using much of the newly published DPI guiding principles they received from DPI one day earlier.
June 30: The Solutions Teams reported to the district’s leadership team some of their preliminary findings:
Remembering that the overwhelming number of parents indicated preference for an environment of no masks, these teams worked on:
● How do we socially distance on buses?
● How do we enter and exit the school building at the start and end of the day social distancing?
● How do we handle lockers and hall pass times?
● How do we get desks 6 feet apart?
● How do lunch and breakfast work?
● Do we need staggered start times, release times, playground/recess times, and bathroom breaks?
These above logistical issues also bled into the instructional delivery model. The high school, with the largest number of students and staff, realized they could not socially distance students and staff without reducing the number of students attending school per day. The thought of a hybrid model in which students physically attend school 40 percent of the days and learn virtually 60 percent of the days became intriguing.
When considering “no masks,” this may be the only way we could do this.
(In the next portion of his extensive presentation, Rollefson went on to share information from the American Academic Academy of Pediatrics and from a collective group of Dane County school superintendents that argued against a hybrid model and in favor of five-day-a-week, face-to-face instruction, with added protections for students and staff.)
(At this time, superintendents from across Jefferson County joined into their own collective planning group to try to work toward a sensitive and informed collective vision of what it would take to provide the optimal educational experience for area students under these pandemic conditions.)
(A related article on page A5 details the conclusions the county superintendents came to and which the individual administrators will be taking to their own school boards in the near future.)
Currently there are no directives from the federal government.
There are no mandates from the State of Wisconsin government.
Jefferson County is not directing what and how we shall proceed.
As a superintendent, I largely prefer local control. Admittedly, it would be easier to have someone tell us what to do ... However, what if we do not like what they tell us to do?
In the end, it is our job to figure this thing out. I know there will be groups of people not pleased no matter what is decided.
There are no good options for next year. There are some options better than others. Every scenario presents struggles that break my heart.