Terry Falk

School Districts Rethink Reopening

Oak Creek Franklin district votes to go virtual. Will others follow?

By , Wisconsin Examiner - Aug 18th, 2020 10:54 am
School classroom. Pixabay License. Free for commercial use. No attribution required.

School classroom. (Pixabay License).

Many Wisconsin school districts planned to reopen this fall with a traditional schedule. Now some of those districts are rethinking that decision. Oak Creek Franklin Joint School District received an “F” on its school opening plans from the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) Region 7, as the Wisconsin Examiner reported. On August 13, the Oak Creek Franklin school board held a special board meeting and decided to abandon its plan and go virtual.

Eleven community members spoke out in favor of maintaining a traditional schedule. They addressed their inability to cover child care, their concerns about their children’s social/emotional needs, and that fact that the quality of virtual instruction didn’t compare with the classroom learning. Two parents of special needs students stated that virtual instruction just wouldn’t work for their children.

Other parents were critical of the district’s in-person plans. One stated that the district was not following any of the medical recommendations other than having students wear masks. “If one child in the city of Oak Creek dies, that is one child we could have saved,” said a second parent.

For over an hour, superintendent Daniel Unertl went over the infection rates, hospital capacity and pointed out that Oak Creek was in a different place than it was just a few weeks ago when the school board voted for a traditional opening. The infection rate in Oak Creek was now at 9.6%, much higher than the 5% recommended for a regular, in-person school.

Unertl recommended that the district open virtually, examine the numbers after four weeks, and if everything looked good, they could start opening two weeks later. The board modified his recommendation to start the four-week clock right away, which would allow the schools to open two weeks earlier. But unless the infection rate magically drops five points overnight, it is doubtful the district can open its doors within a month after the beginning of school.

Even when schools open, Unertl recommended that they use a hybrid model, with students attending only two days a week, some on Monday/Tuesday, others on Thursday/Friday in order to cut the number of students in half on any one day. The worst-case scenario would be a dramatic, full-fledged opening only to be followed by another total shutdown after infections rise, he pointed out.

School board member June Eickhoff said she was worried about the emotional toll distance learning was taking on students. Frankly, the quality of virtual instruction in the spring wasn’t the best, she noted. Unertl said he understood her concerns but stated that his staff spent much of the summer improving their virtual instruction skills, and it would be much better in the fall.

Unertl is concerned about staffing in other districts in the Milwaukee area. “I think we can have enough staff to open our doors, but once we open them, I don’t know how that proceeds.” The district has lost a handful of teachers, and it is becoming harder to find replacements. Finding substitute teachers may get increasingly difficult.

What the board and the superintendent didn’t address was what school would look like if and when the buildings are open. Will there be temperature checks? Single-direction hallways? Six-foot distancing in the classrooms? Some of those questions might be answered in the day-to-day operations plans. None of those questions were raised by the school board as it made its decision. The board was just trying to get through the opening of school; other issues may follow.

While one district official acknowledged the grading system used by WEAC to evaluate Oak Creek Franklin, she stated that the grade played no part in the district’s decision making; it was all about the data and numbers.

At least they will wear masks

“Why are we not requiring the wearing of masks?” asked one parent at a Kettle Moraine school board meeting. WEAC also gave Kettle Moraine an “F” on its opening plans.

At the July 21 meeting, the school board went beyond just recommending that students and staff wear masks; it mandated them. Students who refuse to wear masks will face escalating disciplinary actions. On the third offense, the student will be removed from regular classes and placed in an alternative program.

There may be school activities where students don’t wear masks, including band or choir. Not wearing masks during choir should be especially concerning. Several high-profile virus spreads have occurred among choir members in other communities. Singing sends respiratory droplets much farther than normal conversations.

In an email to Ted Kraig, Regional Director of WEAC Region 7, Kettle Moraine stated that the grading done by WEAC was not accurate. The district gave no details. Kraig said WEAC is asking for specifics from Kettle Moraine and will make adjustments if needed. The WEAC grading of Kettle Moraine did take into consideration the school district’s modification of its mask requirement, and WEAC gave the district credit for that modification. Kettle Moraine got an “F” because it fell short in other standards.

Other school districts receiving an “F” from WEAC were Cudahy, Franklin, Greendale and West Bend. None have made major modifications to their opening protocols at this time. All districts are allowing parents to have their children learn virtually if they wish.

And meeting the wishes of parents appears to be the direction many districts are following. No district is more flexible than West Bend which will allow for full day instruction, virtual and a hybrid. Under their proposed hybrid model, students can learn at home in such classes as math, science and English, but come back to school for music, art and other hands-on classes. Whether the district can juggle all three options and still maintain a healthy environment remains to be seen.

Virus spikes in Oconto Falls

Mud, dirt and possibly droplets containing the coronavirus flew through the air onto the crowd of spectators and participants at the Dirty City Motorplex in Lena, WI, just 30 miles north of Oconto Falls. Thousands were there for the Championship Off Road races that were held July 25-26.

Oconto Falls recorded its first death from the virus last Wednesday, August 12.  Over 270 county residents have tested positive in a population of 4,500. According to Valarie Nickels, Oconto Falls teacher and union representative, there is speculation that the Motorplex may have been a major contributor to community spread in the county. Two restaurants in town had to close because employees were infected, and who knows how many birthday parties and social events may have contributed to the outbreak.

The district’s plan was to have all students in attendance four days a week using Wednesday for deep school cleaning and beginning training and connecting to students in case the school district must close down entirely and go virtual. On Monday, August 10, Nickels sent a six-page letter to the administration and board members outlining teacher concerns on school opening. By the end of the week, the superintendent responded with his own ten-page letter trying to answer those concerns.

On Monday August 17, the school board met. Since March, all board meetings have been held virtually. The public could observe the meetings by joining them online. However, despite the spike of COVID–19 in the community, the board elected to have this meeting in-person, with all participants wearing masks. Since the public could now attend the meeting in-person, the district stated that they had no obligation to allow the public to comment from remote locations. If the public wanted to say something, they had to attend. The meeting was not streamed online.

Nevertheless, we know from Monday’s meeting that Oconto Falls will make no changes from their original plan. Students will attend full days, four days a week.

Reprinted with permission of Wisconsin Examiner.

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