With the COVID pandemic beginning to wane, School District of Fort Atkinson faculty and staff have been endeavoring, in earnest, to bring events back.

“And, certainly, some of those (events) have been done virtually and some of those have been done in a hybrid fashion,” District Administrator Rob Abbott told board of education members during their regular monthly meeting Thursday. “In many cases, we’ve been able to bring people back into our facilities as well.”

And how the district intends to address the upcoming Fort Atkinson High School Class of 2021 graduation on Sunday, June 13, at 1 p.m. is foremost on people’s minds, he said.

“Just for the public’s knowledge, we are planning to have an in-person graduation as much as possible, that will take place in our high school gymnasium,” Abbott indicated. “All of our graduates will be afforded four (reservation only) tickets to share with their family,” with extra tickets being redistributed to those who can use them.

In the event of an unforeseen large-group gathering restriction between now and June 7, he said, the in-person graduation program would be moved outdoors onto the school’s athletic field with the four tickets still being honored.

“And, heaven forbid, if that option wasn’t possible for us, we would move to a photo opportunity in the gymnasium,” Abbott said. “And if that wasn’t possible, we’d move to a completely virtual (ceremony).”

High school staff, he said, are preparing for all those scenarios to be available, if needed, and for a decision on format to be finalized and communicated to families on June 7.

“But clearly we’re hoping to have a very traditional — in all the right ways — graduation coming up in June,” Abbott stated.

With respect to face coverings, the superintendent suggested that everyone “stay the course” by continuing to wear facemasks indoors at this time for a couple of different reasons.

“One is we’re in countdown mode,” Abbott said. “As much as I don’t count down the days of school, there are not very many left. And (COVID mitigation) routines and procedures and processes and expectations are in place, and changing (them) at this point, probably, is more confusing than it is helpful. And so we would encourage our processes and procedures remaining in place until the end of this school year.”

One thing the board could consider, he said, is making outdoor face coverings use optional after school is dismissed for the year.

“June 9th would be a logical time if you thought to make face coverings on school property that are out of doors optional at that time,” Abbott said.

District officials, he noted, are fielding a lot of questions pertaining to summer school, which starts the third full week of June.

“So, if you (board) are wanting to make some adjustments to face coverings being worn out of doors on school property, our suggestion would be after the end of the school year just to avoid some confusion,” Abbott said.

After some discussion — and to provide consistency for students and help ensure an in-person graduation — board members Thursday voted unanimously that beginning June 9, the use of face coverings in outdoor spaces on district grounds will be optional for staff, students and visitors.

Future of virtual learningThe superintendent also discussed use of the remote, virtual learning model in the district moving forward.

“We have offered a full virtual option for learners from day one (of the lock-down),” Abbott said. “We’ve also offered concurrent (simultaneous in-person and virtual) instruction — that has certainly presented some challenges, and some extra legwork and planning and execution for our staff. It’s been extraordinarily good for families and kids and learning.”

The district also had an option for in-person instruction when buildings were able to be open safely, he said, noting that families have been provided a choice of learning formats each quarter.

One unintended result, he said, has been a daily choice of learning format by students and their families.

“One of the things that was never an intended consequence or impact of this was the daily choice of being virtual or in-person by students and families,” Abbott said. “That’s definitely, at the secondary level, become more of a practice, which is something that faculty, staff and administration have sort of lived with.”

Of late, the district has seen an “extreme drop-off” in families choosing the full virtual option, he said, particularly during the fourth quarter.

“Numbers are very, very small at the elementary levels and at the secondary schools — perhaps half of what we were seeing, if not less, earlier in the year,” Abbott said.

The superintendent emphasized that a number of students whose families are choosing the full virtual option are students who really need to be attending class in person.

“There are certain circumstances where a virtual option done well can be a very appropriate learning mode for certain students with adequate support and structure at home,” Abbott said. “But that is more of an unusual circumstance than it is a regular circumstance. So, we definitely — I think everyone would agree — are seeing some students who are electing to be full virtual who will definitely learn better when they are in-person.”

The superintendent next envisioned what future virtual learning model(s) in the district might look like, saying that’s something teaching staff, in particular, are interested in.

“I’ll admit that I, and we, have been hoping for a full-virtual option at all of our (grade) levels next year,” Abbott said, “but taking COVID out of the mix.”

Full-virtual instruction, he said, is an option that the district would like to continue to explore without the “COVID ‘baggage.’”

“We did extensive surveying of families on a couple of different occasions …,” Abbott said, regarding preferred learning formats. “And we looked very closely at what we thought, programmatically, we (district) could sustain if we built something to needs.

“Those needs were not there,” he added. “So, I would say that we do not have enough interest at this time to start up sort of a home-grown, perpetuating virtual program. But I do hope to re-investigate that, perhaps next year.”

While virtual learning doesn’t work for some students, as has been established, the superintendent said “some (people) are having a hard time distinguishing it from a reaction to COVID versus it being a meaningful learning style.”

In the end, he said, time might afford the district a “different dialogue” with people per a full-virtual option.

The administrator also said there is the potential for some statutory changes related to virtual instruction and open enrollment.

“I do think that moving forward, done well, this could be an opportunity for us to invite some additional open enrollment (students) to the district programmatically moving forward,” Abbott indicated.

Nevertheless, he said, Fort Atkinson schools still will offer a full-virtual learning option next year.

“But it will be provided by our district partner JEDI (Jefferson and Eastern Dane Interactive network), which is run through a consortium of schools in CESA 2, of which we have been a partner for many, many years,” Abbott said. “JEDI has reinvented itself very quickly, and also rather slowly over time. Slowly, because that’s the way good change happens, and quickly to adapt to the increased needs of COVID.”

For those families in Fort Atkinson schools wanting a full-virtual model, he said, the district will assist them become a partner with JEDI.

“We do not see a School District of Fort Atkinson full-virtual option,” Abbott said, given the current pandemic status. “We do expect that all students will be in-person next year.”

But yet, he said, there are certain aspects to a virtual model that are too good to lose.

“We’ve seen an uptick in family connections through a virtual means,” Abbott pointed out. “For some people, parent-teacher conferences were way more accessible in a Zoom setting — or a parent meeting. So, those are some opportunities that we’ll continue to explore because they’re just too good to lose.”

Live-streaming athletic events, he said, is another great way to utilize the virtual format.

“I’ve had more people talk about athletic events that they’ve watched at home than they would have, perhaps, going to our gymnasium or our athletic fields as well,” Abbott said.

Moreover, the district has experienced greater technology use, integration and accessibility, “and those things will not go away,” he said, adding the district will dive deeper into exploring how technology can improve instruction.

And while concurrent learning has been very successful for students and families, Abbott said “it has been very rigorous on our teaching community, as well as some logistics and just some school operation pieces.”

“So, we do not see having a full-virtual option available, but we know we can do it, we know that it works, and we know that if there are specific student needs, it is an option to still have kids be able to attend some or all of their classes, given certain circumstances,” he added. “So, that’s a piece that we’ll be able to use on an as-needed basis.”

Virtual learning also could be made available systemically to students and staff, Abbott concluded, in the event of inclement weather.

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