JEFFERSON — Masks, social distancing, synchronous learning with students at home and others at school, guidelines for school closings and health checks all figured into a 43-page COVID-19 School Reopening Plan Handbook approved by the Jefferson school board Monday night.
Introducing the plan, Jefferson school Superintendent Mark Rollefson noted that this is the first time in his long educational career that as August approached, administrators were not sure what the coming school year would look like.
There will be many new milestones that teachers, students and the community will cross together in the coming months, hopefully among them an end to the current pandemic situation.
For right now, COVID-19 overwhelms all considerations as planners prepare to start the school year with numerous new protections and contingencies.
This marks the first time Jefferson teachers have ever been asked to teach on two platforms simultaneously — providing in-person instruction for students sitting in the classroom while accommodating virtual learning for students whose parents have chosen to keep them home.
Meanwhile, school staffers will be overseeing a minefield of new regulations designed to minimize spread of the virus.
The extensive and detailed COVID-19 plan approved by the school board Monday states its mission as “to reduce health risks related to COVID-19, (and to reduce) child and adolescent physical or sexual abuse, substance abuse, depression and suicidal ideation while also providing for quality education, student service and extracurricular activities.”
The plan’s mission statement went on to state that the goal of face-to-face teaching and learning is of utmost importance as school planners consider students’ safety, social-emotional and physical health, and other logistical and practical factors.
At the same time, the plan noted, the district must be willing to shift to a blended, hybrid or full virtual environment if needed as pandemic conditions change.
“I have not run across one single staff member who said teaching virtually is a better delivery method,” Rollefson said. “Every educator I ever hired had a plan in mind of what teaching and learning would look like, and it’s not virtual. However, we also realize we have to look at the science, study the data and understand shifts across our state, county and area.”
Rollefson noted that he has been working with other Jefferson County public school superintendents and private school principals to make sure everyone was on the same page and could present a united front to provide quality education while combating this disease.
Rather than seeing each other as competitors, as schools often are on the playing field and in the race for open-enrollment students, the cooperating administrators determined to stand together in unity.
Guiding their decisions, school planners sought out the most up-to-date science about how COVID-19 is transmitted (mainly person to person via airborne particles), acknowledging that we now know COVID-19 is contagious among asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic carriers.
“That is why it is important for people to wear a face covering when they cannot social-distance 6 feet or more in public settings,” the plan reads. “Cloth face coverings provide an extra layer to help prevent respiratory droplets from traveling in the air and onto other people.”
Planners have to weigh numerous factors as they eye reopening schools. Community need — as reflected in two sets of surveys the district has recently compiled — is part of that equation.
Also important is input from Jefferson County, including the infection status in the county overall, in the City of Jefferson specifically and among Jefferson staff and students.
Agency guidelines, from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, the Center for Disease Control and the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, among others, provide another layer of considerations.
Planners must consider the feasibility of safety precautions, taking into account medically fragile students, high-risk staff members, cleaning and disinfecting expectations, and the need for personal protective equipment.
Planners considered numerous student learning models, determining that in-person teaching was most desirable, but that virtual learning needed to be available for those who needed it or chose to study this way during this unprecedented time.
Planners also took into account what neighboring districts were doing in the local area, in their conference and across the region.
Weighing risks, they consulted with legal counsel and liability insurance representatives, also considering student and staff mental health and the district’s limited financial resources.
Working toward reopening, the district established building-level Solutions Teams; worked with Dousman Transport, the district’s bus company; consulted with Fort HealthCare and school nurse Lynn Zaspel; and took Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association deliberations into account.
Finally, the district had to consider state and federal requirements, including available stimulus dollars, DPI requirements and student nutrition requirements.
Every new requirement had an opposing consideration planners sought to balance.
For example, increased social distancing required decreased class size.
Increased numbers of students taking advantage of virtual learning might be medically necessary, but decreases the effectiveness of teaching.
Increased COVID-19 safety correlates to decreased in-person learning in school, which in turn can lead to increased child abuse and neglect, especially in homes that are already stressed.
The Jefferson schools are standing by a requirement for all students and staff to wear face coverings when it is not possible to enforce social distancing of 6 feet or more.
By going to masks, the district lessens the need for other, extremely onerous requirements, such as staggered restroom breaks, eliminating contracted bus riders, extreme spacing of classes, restricted recesses, physical dividers in classrooms, altered class schedules, the elimination of lockers, assigned seats on buses and more.
Even with face coverings, some concessions will be necessary to minimize contagion, such as breakfast served in the classrooms and lunch seating spaced throughout the building rather than in one central area.
The COVID-19 reopening plan lays out four different levels of instruction that could be used depending on the severity of the disease outbreak in the schools and surrounding area.
Level 1 would be normal in-person schooling like students have experienced in prior years, with no special restrictions.
The Jefferson schools currently are looking to start their year at Level 2.
This would entail a combination approach, with some families choosing to learn virtually, connecting with their classes from home at the same time students at the school meet with the teacher in person.
Level 3, the next level of restrictions, would be a hybrid model, with students switching off between virtual and in-person learning on different days to minimize contact.
Level 4 would require a shift to all-virtual instruction, as in the spring, but with synchronous learning and a greater level of vigor.
Even in an all-virtual format, planners have made the decision to make safe spaces available in the schools for the most vulnerable students and their families so that those children can continue to access virtual learning.
“This would be very fluid,” Rollefson said. “We could move between the models over the course of the school year.”
The decision to move to a different level would rest with the school board and superintendent, in consultation with local health professionals, public health officials, state agencies and the county’s new epidemiologist.
Jefferson and other schools throughout the county have called on the recently hired epidemiologist to clarify three key questions, as well as providing continuing guidance as the situation progresses.
The first question school planners have asked the epidemiologist is “What is the metric to know when it’s time to close a school?”
The second question school planners were eager to have answered dealt with the process schools should follow if a staff member, student, staff member’s spouse, or parent tests positive for COVID-19.
The third question asked the epidemiologist how contact tracing would work in the schools once someone tested positive among the students, among the staff, or at a school event.
The epidemiologist is working on these questions and detailed answers are expected within the week, Rollefson said.
As of the most recent parent survey, between 20 percent and 25 percent of families indicated they would be choosing virtual instruction for their children, although this number might change as the beginning of the school year approaches.
Rollefson said he would not be surprised to see that percentage inch up to 35 percent by the end of August.
Families are free to choose either model at this point, and some families are even splitting their children up, sending one child to school while keeping another, who might have a particular vulnerability, at home.
However, to assist in classroom planning, the district is asking that families make a nine-week commitment to a certain model – either virtual or in-person schooling – so people aren’t switching back and forth, requiring the classrooms to be rearranged.
With all of these changes coming in the fall, the Jefferson school board approved another change in the school year calendar to accommodate the heightened level of staff training needed under these unprecedented circumstances.
Originally, classes were slated to start Sept. 1 and 2. Now those two days are designated as staff-training days, with school starting Sept. 3 and 4.
Additional staff-training days have been sprinkled throughout the first semester, although no changes have yet been made to the second half of the year.
Rollefson explained that the DPI has announced it will exempt school districts from the usual days and hours of instruction requirement again in 2020-21 due to the pandemic.
In another pandemic-related change, Jefferson Middle School students will be allowed to take their Chromebooks home, which will aid the district should it have to pivot to all-virtual schooling.
Elementary-schoolers learning from home will be provided Chromebooks as well.
Meanwhile, the district has opened up the possibility that “snow days” will become “virtual learning days” instead, as students across the country are significantly behind due to the pandemic-related disruptions in learning in the spring.
As to mask requirements, all students and staff will be required to wear face coverings when social distancing is not possible.
Masks will be considered “clothing” and thus cannot carry any inappropriate logos, writing or messages. Masks will be required to fit snugly against the side of the face.
Some employees will be wearing face coverings with clear plastic areas that allow students to see their mouths. This is especially important for choir directors, occupational and physical therapists, those working with deaf students, and others in similar roles.
Board member Terri Wenkman asked if when if there is a deaf student in a class, that child’s classmates can be provided with mouth-visible masks as well to aid in that child’s understanding of classroom discussion.
The pandemic will require numerous building accommodations.
For example, the plan boosts the number of health rooms at each school to two. One will be a regular health room, dealing with student medications, injuries and non-COVID-related symptoms.
The other will be a coronavirus-dedicated room. All of these rooms will have “negative pressure” and will exhaust directly outside so potentially contaminated air will not be recirculated elsewhere in the school.
As to school lunches, students eat throughout the school. The service area itself will also change, with self-serve islands like a salad bar or condiment bar eliminated and only pre-packaged elements allowed.
The district has Plexiglas barriers on back-order to go up around particularly vulnerable students who, due perhaps to a disability, could not utilize a mask.
Whether lockers will be used remains up in the air. With a full student population, students would still be shoulder-to-shoulder at lockers, which would not be advisable, Rollefson said. However, depending on how many families choose virtual learning, the district might be able to space students out.
The high school has an entire section of recently unused lockers located by the agriculture room that might be called back into service, he noted.
All field trips are on hold, including the high school’s planned annual Europe Trip, and all assemblies and large gatherings are paused.
New visitor procedures would heavily restrict visitors in the building, but a vestibule would be available for families to drop off forgotten school materials.
Parent meetings would be virtual if possible, and if families must meet with school personnel on-site, these meetings would require masks to be worn by all involved.
Rigorous school cleaning and sanitizing procedures have already been established and approved by the school board.
Rollefson noted that while the school district does anticipate using lots of hand sanitizer, none of the sanitizer the district uses contains the ingredient about which the FDA recently issued a warning.
After spending roughly an hour reviewing the plan Monday night, the school board unanimously passed the document.
Board President Donna Bente said she appreciated the level of detail that has gone into the process and the numerous logistical concerns it addressed.
“Very little about this situation makes anyone happy,” Bente said. “The key to me is always that the benefit outweigh the harm.”
On that topic, board member Travis Maze noted that it also is important that parents understand that their students will not be required to be in masks the full day. When they’re outside or able to social-distance 6 feet or more, students will be allowed to take the masks off.
“Overwhelmingly, kids want to go back to school,” board member Tanya Ball said. “These guidelines help us to lower the risk, though we can’t eliminate it entirely. It’s a matter of getting into a team mindset. I think everybody will adapt, once we get started.”
Bente noted that it is important to acknowledge that while school planners are working to start the year at Level 2, if circumstances change, possibly even before the school year starts, they could decide to move to another level.
“All of us are working together to mitigate this situation,” board member Terri Wenkman said, stressing the importance of thinking not only about one’s own needs, but about the needs of the community as a whole and everyone in it.
“There is no perfect solution for this,” Bente said. “What we have prepared, I think, represent the best of what we can do at this time.”