Gilman schools working to stay ahead of virus risk
The COVID-19 pandemic is keeping Gilman School Board in near-turmoil, with information rolling in and changing by the hour.
To keep students and families up to date, district superintendent Wally Leipart has been hosting virtual meetings including a coffee hour every Wednesday at 7:30 a.m., and a COVID-19 planning team has been congregating every Tuesday to take further steps in safeguarding students against the virus.
Gilman’s populace was surveyed to determine how they felt about graduation, and results show students and parents overwhelmingly want a traditional ceremony to occur some time during the summer months. If that isn’t feasible, then a drive-thru style ceremony is wanted as a contingency plan.
The board is currently looking at August 7 as a possible graduation date, though they’re considering handing out seniors’ diplomas on the original May 22 graduation date; the exact logistics have yet to be set up.
“Graduation is my favorite event of the school year, but we recognize [the pandemic] will alter what the ceremony traditionally looks like,” said principal John Hess. “We’re using our time now to be as proactive as possible. We’re collaborating as a team and working to tackle these issues as effectively as we can.”
Graduation plans may include drive-up graduation photos, but limit the amount of people in attendance. A curbside pickup was suggested by Leipart, with three stations available to the students: the first station to drop off chromebook laptops lent to them by the school, diploma pick-up at the next, and at the final one get their picture taken next to the school sign. All attending family members have to stay in their vehicle while the student goes through the process.
Gilman is looking to set up an online virtual school intended for kindergarten through fifth grade students, via eSucceed Charter School. The “school” would be a permanent addition to the district, and not a temporary school.
“The school would be under the same administration,” explained Leipart. “All they have to do is get a new school number.”
Company director Michele Andorfer and president of the eSucceed governance board Kelly Berry spoke to the district board on May 18, walking them through the process of the virtual school. The program has over 400 students enrolled this year, and is looking to expand.
Berry said while they and Gilman school operate a little differently, they both have the same mission, which is to bring the best possible education to Wisconsin’s children.
The e-school wouldn’t cost anything to start up initially, and Leipart said the new addition is necessary.
“We already have kids in elementary that leave our school to go to virtual schools, regardless of quality of instruction, and we never see them again,” he said. “Right now we’re at -70 open enrollment... I think it’s a nobrainer, I think you have to do it.”
The board authorized the drafting of a contract, which will later be discussed in June, where it will either be approved or rejected. Leipart has been working with eSucceed’s treasurer to create a mock budget of what a school year might look like. They have an estimated $8,125 available for open enrollment aid next year, and are building the budget off that approximation.
Since schools are closed through at least June 30, the board is keeping all their plans “fluid” and not definitively setting anything, while the spread of COVID-19 keeps them against the ropes.
“There’s zero cases here, but 10 miles away in Clark County there’s  confirmed cases,” said Leipart. “I have a soon-to-be nephew who had COVID-19. He’s only 27 or 28 years old and he went down for the count for three weeks, absolutely sick.”
Leipart said the district needs to set the standard for reopening by observing social distancing rules, including during graduation, by not shaking hands or hugging and wearing face masks and gloves.
“No one has the authority to demand a citizen wear a face mask, but you can make employees wear them,” he continued, adding that masks may become the norm once schools open up again, and they may even require students to wear masks while on the premises.
“If we start having cases in Taylor County, I’m wearing a mask for the remainder of [the pandemic,]” Leipart said. “If it gets in the school, I think it would explode on us faster than we could ever respond... We’ve been fortunate, we would have 10 times as many cases if school didn’t shut down.”
The district will see a hike in costs when kids eventually return to school, particularly from staffing.
“During the COVID-19 reopening, whatever it may look like, I think we’re going to need [additional] money for personnel. We’re at the point were we need to have that conversation at the board level of do we continue with part-time paraprofessionals or go to full-time paraprofessionals,” said Leipart, adding that Gilman needs to be careful of how they allocate their funding.