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The School District of Fort Atkinson will return to an in-person learning option on Jan. 5. Above, in this file photo, a Fort Atkinson Middle School teacher instructs pupils both in person and remotely using a large computer monitor with speakers and a camera.

Due to declining COVID-19-positive cases in Jefferson County, middle and high school students in the School District of Fort Atkinson who elect in-person instruction will continue to be allowed to do so, on an alternating day schedule, until at least Feb. 18, 2021.

Board of education members voted unanimously to take that action during their regular monthly meeting Monday night.

“At the Fort Atkinson Middle School and Fort Atkinson High School, we would suggest that students attend in-person who would like to be in-person on the rotating schedule that we have in place now to provide for the additional mitigation through Feb. 18, and (then) reviewed at that night’s board of education meeting,” District Administrator Rob Abbott said. “During the next three and a half weeks or so, we would be adding additional high needs students at both the middle school and high school in some number in order to provide every day in-person instruction for some of those groups.”

The superintendent said he is sure there will be some questions about continuing the alternating day schedule if the county’s COVID numbers continue to decline.

“We believe that it is just simply too soon at this point to bring all of our students back at the middle school and the high school daily,” Abbott stated. “Please, also remember that we have significantly different scales of student numbers at both the middle school and the high school, especially when you’re talking about lunch or other times when students are crossing paths or sharing space.”

He then shared an example of this alternate-day cohorting model in action.

“Last week we had a (COVID) positive case at our middle school,” Abbott said. “Had we been in full attendance, about 43 students would have had to quarantine. But with the alternating-day schedule, only 16 (students) were required to do so.

“If we are able to bring more students back sooner than Feb. 18, should the data change significantly, we will,” he added. “But it just feels like it’s a little too early right now.”

Meanwhile, Abbott also is authorized to determine additional high-risk student groups that could attend school every day.

Additionally he is authorized to return operations to the same level the district operated at as of Sept. 3, 2020, at a date that allows operations to adjust and gives district stakeholders reasonable notice should infection rates decline.

The school district is continuing to follow Jefferson County Health Department guidance as it relates to quarantining individuals and closure of facilities due to infection rates within those facilities.

At the elementary schools, in-person classroom instruction will continue for all students in grades K-5 who would like to attend in-person five days per week.

All students who choose to continue receiving their instruction via a remote, virtual learning platform still will be able to do so in the new concurrent, or “mirrored,” learning format.

The Fort Atkinson school district had been operating almost exclusively with virtual-only instruction. However, given a steady decline in COVID-19 data, the board last month approved the return of in-person learning with a continued virtual option, starting Jan. 5.

On that date, the district switched to a “concurrent classroom” format in which some students attend class in person while others attend fully virtual. The teacher in a concurrent classroom attempts to meet the needs of the students both in class and online at the same time.

This blended model, taught simultaneously, gives parents and students a preference of learning formats.

Essentially, both the middle and high school students who elect will continue attending classes each week in person on an AA/BB schedule by alphabet that’s the same at both schools, allowing for additional mitigation, then attend virtually on the days they are not attending in-person.

A 1:30 p.m. early release on Mondays throughout third quarter has been added to allow teachers prep time to address some of the unique challenges created by this mirrored, dual-format learning.

In giving his monthly reopening update, Superintendent Abbott began by looking at county data.

“As you can see, things have fallen off pretty dramatically,” Abbott said, referencing a chart showing Jefferson County’s average daily COVID-positive case rates by week. “We did see a bit of an uptick coming out of the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, but not perhaps as significantly as once assumed.”

Based on county metrics over a period of time, he said, the district has hovered in the mid-50s in confirmed new daily cases per 100,000 people on a seven-day rolling average.

“We were down in the 30s, the 40s, and then right at 50,” Abbott indicated. “And then today, after a few days of delay in getting new data, we were at 30. Of course, this number doesn’t cover everything, but it’s certainly an indicator that we’ve been using for months to give us a sense of where we’re at.”

A daily case rate of 25 is Jefferson County’s threshold for reopening schools.

Beyond those metrics, he said, the district has been working with a forecasting model since the beginning of the school year. Given that COVID cases have been stabilizing, he said, the district hasn’t had as much need for twice-weekly updates.

“Looking out over the next 90 days … it (forecasting model) keeps us (district) in this zone that we’ve been in, where we’ve been in the 30s, 40s or perhaps 50 or even better,” Abbott shared. “So that information, I think, definitely affirms that the board’s decision in December got us to a place where we did have a successful reopen after winter break. And that we will potentially be able to remain open well into the future, provided we are able to control the number of positive cases in any one of our school buildings.”

The district also has been updating its COVID dashboards on its website weekly. On the student COVID-19 dashboard, he said, 166 students currently are in quarantine and 31 students are COVID-19 positive.

“We have been able to remain open because most of these students have been virtual only, so they’ve not been in a school building or not been with others attending school,” Abbott said. “These (students) have not directly impacted our school community.”

Looking at the staff COVID-19 dashboard, he said, the district currently has five staff members in quarantine and no COVID-positive cases to report at this time.

Abbott reminded the public that “while we’re in-person, the district might need to pivot once again to virtual-only instruction. Jefferson County Health Department guidance will be the determining factor as it has been in the past, given positivity rates.”

In conclusion, the superintendent commented: “It has been incredible to be back in session, and it has been incredible to have kids in hallways, and staff who have been incredibly flexible and incredibly earnest in their work. It’ just been an incredible couple of weeks.”

He cautioned, however, that the pandemic is not yet over for staff, students and parents.

“For people to have their kids in school buildings, for us to continue in school buildings — with vaccinations or not — we need to continue the mitigation and the careful approach that we have toward COVID-19,” Abbott emphasized. “Literally, every single student and every single adult will determine whether or not we are able to remain in-person for periods of time.

“We really appreciate people’s cooperation, but we sure need that as well moving forward,” he said.

Facilities useAlso Monday, board members voted by roll call to allow use of district facilities by adult non-district groups, and that these groups must pay for the full custodial costs associated with the facility use, which will be determined by the building principal.

All cleaning and custodial duties will be performed by school district custodians.

The board of education in November approved subsidizing half of the additional COVID-19-related cleaning costs for outside facilities users, Abbott said, adding that the cost incurred by the district since the December board meeting is less than $1,000.

“We are allowing, at this point, for students or youth in the area to use facilities outside of the school day,” Abbott said. “There are additional cleaning expenses specifically related to COVID-19 that are, dollar for dollar, used for that purpose.”

Board Treasurer Adam Paul voted against the move, citing some reservations he had about possible COVID-19 transmission, particularly among student users of the facilities.

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