JEFFERSON — Earlier this year, Jefferson students signed up for all of their typical summer school classes: swimming lessons, outside games, skills brush-up courses, creative crafts, drama programs and more.
But with the mandated closing of school buildings through the end of June, all of those early registrations have been wiped off the calendar, to be replaced with a mixed program that still is taking shape.
For the last couple of months, Jefferson school officials have been working to re-envision summer school for the current pandemic reality, though the target keeps changing as new information comes in from government officials at all levels.
“I wish I knew exactly what summer school is going to look like,” said Mark Rollefson, superintendent of the Jefferson school district. “This has been a perfect microcosm of everything else in our lives right now.”
A week ago Friday, he participated in an online meeting with 500 other school officials, at which educators received guidance from health officials.
At that time, he said, they were told that districts likely only would be allowed to offer virtual summer school, and that districts should also plan for a virtual start to the regular school year in September.
Then the following Tuesday, he was told in another virtual administrative meeting attended by hundreds of educators that there might be an opportunity for face-to-face instruction in July or August, and that the school year might be able to start in the regular buildings, with adjustments.
“There was that much change from Friday to Monday,” Rollefson noted.
In this unprecedented and swift-changing climate, Rollefson said, Jefferson school planners are being slow and methodical in their decision making as they try to take in all of the new information.
In recent weeks, the district surveyed certified staff members and paraprofessionals about their interest in summer school and heard back that about 50 percent of staffers were interested in participating. That’s about the same as in an average year.
Then, during the past week or so, the district surveyed families about their interest in participating, and under what conditions they would take part in virtual, face-to-face, or mixed classes.
The district received 311 responses from families representing 590 students, which is pretty good considering the district averages around 1,000 students in the summer school program in a regular year.
“This indicates the level of importance this issue holds for families,” Rollefson said.
Replies were spread across the grade levels and buildings, and also included families of children in parochial school and Head Start, as well as people with children in preschool programs and students taking part in the Eagle Pathways special education program for students age 18-21.
Ordinarily, the Jefferson school district offers a six-week, two-session summer school program rumming from mid-June through mid-July.
With required building closures stretching through June 30, administrators have decided to offer only one course during that month, a virtual Speed and Strength course for high school athletes and other high school students interested in maintaining their fitness over the summer.
In the recent survey, 61 respondents said they’d be interested in signing up for that course.
What will happen later in the summer is still up in the air, depending on how the pandemic plays out and any related changes in regulations.
The district is referring to the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization and local health officials for guidance.
Even though Wisconsin’s Safer-at-Home mandate largely was struck down by the state Supreme Court, the portion of the mandate that applied to K-12 schools was upheld by the court.
That could easily continue into the summer months, especially as Wisconsin has seen a recent uptick in COVID-19 cases, with a record number of new cases recorded Saturday and numbers expected to rise sharply into the near future as bars, restaurants and stores have been allowed to open.
Right now, Jefferson school officials are remaining open to various possibilities, including virtual classes, in-person classes and a mix of virtual and in-person classes.
Complicating the entire process is the fact that while summer school numbers boost a public school district’s official enrollment count incrementally in terms of the state budget, it might be that districts will not be credited for virtual-only enrichment classes, only in-person classes and upper level academic courses that carry credit.
Should in-person classes be possible this summer, the district is looking at the option of hosting classes at four district schools rather than one central site (Jefferson High School) like it traditionally does. In use would be West and East Elementary schools, Jefferson Middle School and Jefferson High School. Sullivan Elementary School is undergoing a major flooring revamp and would not be able to host classes this summer.
In the recent parent survey, 70 percent of families said they’d favor that option.
Some 66 percent of survey respondents said they’d take part in enrichment classes if they were allowed this summer, while if only virtual classes were allowed, 62 percent said they would not wish to sign up.
“This is not surprising,” Rollefson said. “The virtual platform is wearing thin for many.”
There was strong, if not universal, interest in remedial classes being offered over the summer. Rollefson noted that the district tends to “hand-pick” the students they think would most benefit from these classes and reach out to those families.
If restrictions on in-person classes are lifted, 23 percent of families said they would not participate; 12 percent said they’d be comfortable only with virtual classes over the summer; 29 percent said they were not interested at all in more virtual learning; 60 percent said they’d be interested in face-to-face classes and 31 percent said they’d be okay with a hybrid model class with some virtual and some in-person instruction.
As this pandemic situation has forced swift action by school districts, many decisions in recent months that normally would be deliberated by school boards have instead been handled administratively.
For example, with the minimum instructional hours requirement no longer in play, Jefferson administrators decided to cut the final few days off of the school year and turn those into staff inservice days instead.
That means classes for Jefferson students will end June 5, while teachers will continue training and conferencing through June 10.
“As time moves on, a large uptick in action will be needed at the board level,” Rollefson said, indicating that the board might have to set special meetings to approve all of the adjustments that would have to be made before the district is ready to return to face-to-face teaching.
When it does so, there are a whole new layer of factors to be taken into account, Rollefson said, with new intensive cleaning protocols, an increase in custodial time and effort, disinfectant and other cleaning purchases and possibly the reconfiguring of classrooms to accommodate social distancing.
Rollefson said he is not comfortable at this point making decisions about a potential July 1 start date for face-to-face classes, and he’s not sure he will be comfortable making those decisions yet at the next scheduled board meeting on June 12.
For now, the district will be looking to the best recommendations from public health officials at all levels to try to make the best possible decision for students and the district.