JEFFERSON — The Jefferson school board passed a resolution Monday to assure parents that the district is committed to providing face-to-face instruction to students in the fall, contingent on the severity of COVID-19 cases in the area.
School District of Jefferson officials already are deep into planning what kind of enhanced protections they will need to take to ensure students and staff are as healthy as possible in the school buildings.
The resolution passed Monday night applies to students at all levels, from 4-year-old kindergartners through seniors in high school, but district officials noted that they also are working on some kind of virtual accommodations for students who are immune-compromised, who have a high-risk family member or whose families are not comfortable sending them back to the buildings in the fall.
The resolution passed by the school board Monday notes that specific plans regarding virtual options, the daily schedule, the calendar for the year, and potential hybrid models for schooling are still in the process of being worked out, and the enhanced health and safety practices the district will implement are still being finalized.
“The primary purpose of this action is to provide parents the knowledge that the School District of Jefferson intends to provide face-to-face instruction in the fall semester of 2020,” the resolution stated.
Parents want some reassurance that this is the direction district planners are taking, said Superintendent Mark Rollefson.
He said that despite the great effort the district put into its sudden pivot to online learning this spring in response to the coronavirus pandemic shutdowns, district administration and board members recognize that face-to-face instruction is the most effective means of educating students, and they will make every effort to provide that format.
Rollefson added the caveat that this statement is made “knowing full well we could return to virtual learning” if pandemic conditions worsen and health authorities on the state and county levels advise more shutdowns.
Board member Terri Wenkman noted that as it makes these decisions, the district will do so under consultation with authorities on numerous levels.
“It’s important people know it isn’t just us making decisions on our own,” Wenkman said. “It’s under the guidance of Jefferson County Public Health, the DPI (Department of Public Instruction) and other authorities.”
With that statement of purpose in place, the school board on Monday also started the ball rolling on a “juggernaut” of policies aimed at protecting student and staff safety when classes resume in the fall.
The board heard first readings of four policies Monday night.
The first of the policies under consideration was a major update to the district’s communicable disease policy, previously updated in 2012 and now completely reworked to fit the modern era and to take into account known diseases and new threats.
The board also heard a first reading of additional revisions to the 2020-21 employee handbook specifically related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic; a first reading of a new hygiene policy, and a first reading of a new facility cleaning policy.
Addressing the communicable disease policy, school board President Donna Bente said that the draft policy was well-written and clear.
The guidelines addressed in the proposed addendums to the employee handbook are administrative in nature and could be changed without explicit board approval, Rollefson noted.
As new information comes out regarding the pandemic and the most effective measures to keep the coronavirus at bay, administrators could tweak the district’s guidelines for employees without taking the changes back to the school board, Rollefson said. However, he said that any large changes would likely be brought before the board, at least as informational agenda items.
The guidelines, based on recommendations from the Wisconsin Association of School Boards/Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators, include the reasons for the extra protective measures so that employees “know the ‘why’ behind the ‘what’,” Rollefson said.
For example, while in prior circumstances school districts were not allowed to ask the health background of employees, in this pandemic situation, it now is justified to ask these kinds of questions under certain circumstances.
Board member Travis Maze asked whether the draft policies included any bans on travel to coronavirus “hot spots,” or requirements that the district be notified if a staff member has traveled somewhere where COVID-19 is prevalent.
Rollefson said such a measure is not included at this time, since COVID-19 is known to be spreading in communities around the globe.
“A staff member who travels to a cabin in northern Minnesota might be safer than someone who goes to Madison,” the superintendent said.
Maze countered that were a staff member to travel to Brazil right now (currently the epicenter of the pandemic), that would be a concern.
Rollefson responded that regionally, Milwaukee could be considered a hot spot too — should an employee be required to self-quarantine after traveling there?
Board member Dick Lovett said that people’s risk is partly a matter the mode of travel they use (personal vehicle vs. airplane vs. city bus, for example), part destination and part freedom-of-choice issues such as whether they wear a mask in crowds.
Administrators pledged to look further into options regarding potential travel notification requirements.
Looking at the district’s proposed requirement that employees wear a face-covering when social distancing cannot be maintained, Bente said she’d like to include a note in the policy that this could change as pandemic conditions change. For example, this might not be necessary if a vaccine is developed and made available partway through the school year.
Board members also brought up the point that printed/decorated face masks should be subject to school approval, in that school is not the proper place for a face mask carrying a political or religious message or espousing a particular cause.
As to the facility-cleaning policy, Rollefson noted that these enhanced cleaning practices are already well established in the district and that custodians have been working under these protocols since the coronavirus pandemic began.
“This just clarifies for parents and the community what is being done,” Rollefson said.
“Knowing we can never make our facilities 100 percent safe, we are committed to making our schools safer than they ever have been before,” the superintendent said.