Rib Lake targets normal opening with virtual learning back-up plan
Rib Lake School Board held a special meeting on July 28 to determine the parameters of the coming school year, which begins September 1. Thus far, Rib Lake plans to open school five days a week as normal, with a backup plan in the form of virtual learning in case an outbreak of COVID-19 hits the school.
Taylor County Health Department registered nurse Michelle Cahoon outlined a planned infectious disease surveillance program that will be rolled out in September. The program will check for and track all communicable diseases, not just COVID-19.
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“We’re going to designate a person from each building who will get a hold of us everyday at 10 o’clock and let us know how many staff are out and how many students are out for illness,” Cahoon explained. “It doesn’t matter what kind of illness.”
The health department will keep track of the risk level of each building, and move the building up or down their scale of risk depending on how many people are getting sick.
“Our goal is that when we approach medium to high risk, we’ll sit down with the administration team and try to figure out what we can do differently to stop the spread of whatever disease is going through,” she said. “And again, this isn’t just for COVID-19. We’ll be doing this for any disease throughout the schools, because we usually see illness spread through schools before the rest of the community.”
Cahoon said that while tracking disease spread, the health department will not be calling the district to order them to close their doors. The point of tracking is to determine if they need to tweak their plan, such as moving to a four-day school week or close down the schools for two days to provide a deep clean.
“It’s all going to be a group discussion, it’s not going to be us telling you what you need to do,” she said.
District administrator Rick Cardey acknowledged that while a major decision will be up to everybody to make in solidarity, the district still relies on the expertise of the health department to guide them.
“I understand the world we live in: no one wants to say you have to close,” said Cardey. “I’m not throwing the health department under the bus, because my frustration is higher than that. But the point being is, I expect they are going to make candid recommendations to us because they are the health professionals, and [if the situation escalates] they need to say, ‘hey timeout, we should talk.’” The district plans to keep children together in groups so they aren’t wandering around the school interacting with a large number of people. Students, particularly those in elementary, will be kept in cohorts, although the class structure of high school makes separating students much more difficult.
Keeping a hygienic environment is of upmost importance to stem the spread of any disease. As such, the district looks to take further measures to ensure student and staff safety: hand-sanitizer will be provided, drinking fountains will be disabled and students will need to use water bottles, they may allow all students in the district to carry a backpack to reduce trips back and forth to their locker, floor markings may be put in place to aid distancing, office plexiglass barriers may be erected, and fabric furniture could be disposed of in favor of easier-to-clean plastic furniture. Visitors and volunteer speakers are likely to be reduced as well.
The board discussed the need for everyone including students, staff, and parents to be on the look out for potentially sick students who are sent to school by parents who disregard safety precautions. School nurse Judy LeMaster said that there are few unique symptoms of COVID-19, and even symptoms that could be just a cold need to be reported. She pointed out that in the past, some parents would give their sick children medicine such as Tylenol to mask their child’s fever and send them to school anyways, completely disregarding the safety of other students and staff.
“I know this happens,” LeMaster said. “Usually it’s about 12:30, one o’clock that their fever starts coming back up again, and [it’s not until they’ve already spent hours in the school] that we can get them out of the classroom and send them home. So there has to be a lot of education, and expectation, to parents and caregivers saying ‘you really cannot send a sick child to school, there’s so much going on that we can’t let everybody be exposed to it.’... [If parents do that] we’re going to be seeing those symptoms in class.”
LeMaster noted those select parents not taking responsibility for their sick children and sending them to school regardless of their illness was a major problem with the flu last year, saying it was a “very, very sick year of kids and staff, the sickest that I’ve been here.” She also said that temperatures will not be taken when students enter the school.
Bus transportation is the toughest aspect of distancing students. Staggered bus arrival/departure was an option discussed, but the more definitive answer was to space students out one to a seat, along with siblings sharing a seat.
“Like I’ve got two students, and my kids might not like me for it, but they would share the one seat for that short ride,” said Cardey. “And we would assign seats too, because the health department said it would be much easier to track a disease if we know where everyone is sitting.”
Masks, on the other hand, will not be enforced on the bus. In fact, perhaps the biggest issue raised in the meeting was the topic of masks. There was a clear divide between those who wanted masks when social distancing is impossible in order to protect everybody and help to keep them safe, and those who demanded masks not be worn basically ever.
Board treasurer Jason Dananay made a motion to require masks be worn while social distancing can’t be done, sparking an intense debate.
Board member Rollie Thums was against it being a requirement, but fully supported those who wanted to wear one.
“I’m not going to wear a mask,” Thums said. “But John (Adams, a middle school math teacher) is wearing one, and that is perfectly okay. That’s how he feels comfortable, and that’s good. If someone feels that strongly that they want to wear a mask, go for it, but we can’t force people to wear a mask.”
“I feel it’s my obligation to wear a mask, even if it’s to help others,” replied Adams. “[Students] are going to come to school sick... If I see they’re sick and I say, ‘you’re not fit to be here,’ 15 minutes has already gone by and they’ve breathed, sneezed, coughed, expelled everything all over the place, and they will make other people sick.”
Parents in attendance of the meeting - not all of which used their names - were in argument as well, going back and forth about whether masks are useful or not.
“I won’t allow my family to live in fear from what the government is trying to do. This will all be over once the [presidential] election is done,” commented Angelisa Olson in the Zoom chatroom during the meeting.
“I wear a mask for 12-24 hours at any one time at my work,” replied Dr. Cole Marschke. “Yes, I remove it to eat then return it to my face. This is me and nurses, RTs, rad techs, etc. We cannot afford to get more people sick.”
“You’re a doctor, it’s part of your job. I work public bathrooms and my kids and I will not be forced to wear a mask because you’re sacred,” Olson argued against the medical doctor.
“I agree with Cole. I have worn a mask everyday for 8-9 hours for the last 20+ years and I am just fine,” commented Brenda Heiser. “The masks are not necessarily to protect the mask wearer, it is to protect others.”
“Kids do not just wear masks for themselves,” agreed Jane C. “They need to protect their teachers and other staff who do not have the immune system of a 14 year old.”
“Mask wearing should be a choice,” commented an attendee.
“Young kids need to be able to see their teachers faces,” another parent said. “Wearing a mask is very impersonal. A simple smile goes a long way for these kids.”
“My son has bad asthma and allergies, and he can wear a mask with no problems,” commented Becky Hebda. “He knows the importance of a mask because he has learned that.”
“Or don’t be a sheep and don’t wear one,” commented Olson.
After the debate, Dananay retracted his motion for requiring masks when social distancing is impossible due to the indecisiveness of several other board members.
Board clerk Jackie Mohr then made a motion that masks be optional rather than required when social distancing is impossible, a motion that passed with everyone voting yes, except Thums who voted against it due to feeling “just as strongly about not wearing a mask as others feel about wearing one.” With the motion passed, mask wearing when social distancing is impossible will stay the exact same as it was before the motion: up to the individual.
As always, the board underlined the point that nobody wants to be the “bad guy” and make the necessary hard decisions, with Cardey saying “No one above us wants to make a decision,” and board chairman concurring that “Guidance [from government and higher-ups] is almost non-existent.”
When all said and done, Rib Lake will seemingly return to school with minimal changes to anything other than increased cleaning and disinfecting standards, and a backup virtual school plan incase a COVID-19 outbreak happens.
Other Discussions -WIAA pushed school sports back. Football was scheduled to start next week, but it was pushed back to Sept. 7.
-Rib Lake will hold an outdoor graduation ceremony on August 8 at 1 p.m.
-Michelle Oates is transferring to the district’s food service program, with some additional district responsibilities.