Schools scramble to teach amid statewide shutdown
Mark Lacke has been in education for a long time, and he’s never seen any response nearing the one that was taken by the state of Wisconsin this week to shutter all public schools to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. He’s also not overly optimistic that the shutdown will last only a short time.
Lacke is the interim district administrator at the Loyal Public Schools, and one of his main concerns as public activity stalls amid pandemic warnings is keeping students in a learning mode. He and his colleagues at other area schools are coordinating efforts to teach whatever they can online as uncertainty rules over when the school year might resume.
In Spencer, District Administrator Mike Endreas said his staff is rolling out a virtual learning system the district has been preparing to continue education for inclement weather postponements. Already this Tuesday, teachers were set to deliver lessons over the internet, with students on their school-issued devices at home participating and responding electronically. Other area schools do not have full systems in place, but are doing whatever they can to keep education going while students are out of class for at least three weeks.
Gov. Tony Evers issued the order late on March 13 to close all schools, giving them until 5 p.m. this Wednesday to shut everything down. April 6 has been set as the tentative date to reopen, but that is subject to change depending on the status of the COVID-19 disease’s spread in the state. The state is saying at this time that school districts that do not meet required minimum hours of instruction for the year due to the shutdown will be able to apply for waivers “based on the severity and length of the situation.” In information from Evers’ office to schools released this week, the Governor said, ”The DPI (Department of Public Instruction) has stated they will be empathetic to the ability of a district to reasonably meet the hours requirement. The DPI does not yet know the impact of closures or their length. The DPI will do whatever they can to expedite the process surrounding waivers and meet the needs of school districts.”
Meeting the needs of students is foremost on area administrators’ minds. While Endreas said Spencer closed its doors already on Monday given recent word of the coronavirus’ quick spread, the staff was at work getting ready to teach online.
“We were ready to go virtual today (Monday), but we took today to get everything squared away,” Endreas said. “The teachers will be pushing out content on Tuesday.”
Students in grades 6-12 were sent home with laptop computers, and are in communication with their teachers online for video lectures and assignments. Students are not required to log-in live as the lessons are released, but can view them at a later time.
“We also understand day care requirements,” Endreas said. “It may not be possible for students to be available at a given time.”
Inadequate online access will not be an excuse, as the school sent a free “hot spot” device home with any student who indicated they had slow or no service at their home. The district purchased 100 such devices so everyone can get online at home to continue schoolwork.
Endreas said Spencer was a step ahead on the coronavirus closure because it had already planned to teach online classes for weather days. With so many school days called off last winter, high school principal Jason Gorst made plans to go online any day the buses couldn’t go.
“He did a great job of preparing the teachers in this way anyway,” Endreas said. “Our teachers were prepared.”
Spencer teachers do not have to report to the school building during the closure as long as they get their lessons online. “We also understand the health and safety of our staff and understand that a lot of teachers have kids at home, too,” Endreas said. Lacke said Loyal will do what it can to facilitate online learning, but does not have a system in place to reach everyone at home. Some classes may be taught, with the understanding that not every student can get to it.
“Many kids in Clark County don’t have solid internet access,” Lacke said. “All the kids are taking their devices
“I’m so proud of our people. I don’t know that there’s been a prouder day that I’ve had in the district than today. Everyone is just pulling together. This is a tough situation, but it’ll probably be our best.” -- Spencer School District Administrator Mike Endreas home with chargers. If they don’t have internet, then we’re going to have paper copies available.”
Students will not be allowed in the building during the closure, although staff members will be expected to come in to keep up with work. The Loyal senior and junior high staff will come in on oddnumbered dates and the elementary staff will have even dates to keep crowds from getting too large.
Lacke said teachers will do what they can to reach students at home to continue with education as best as possible.
“We’ve just got to keep them engaged,” Lacke said.
He also said he’s not so sure classes will resume by the tentative April 6 date. Given the time it has taken the coronavirus to develop and spread in other countries, that date might be too optimistic.
“I’m also realistic,” Lacke said.
In Greenwood, District Administrator Todd Felhofer has the same outlook. Some work is being done to tide students through for the first few weeks of a closure, but more drastic steps may be needed if the closure is extended.
“We’re trying to determine if this is going past April 6,” he said.
As an example of how quickly this situation is evolving, Felhofer said he at first planned to hold classes through Wednesday of this week. Over the weekend, enough had changed already to convince him to close after Monday.
“That’s just how fluid things are,” he said.
Some materials were sent home with students on Monday, more in the upper grades. At the lower levels, the education is more hands-on.
“”Not everything lends itself to ‘Here, take this home,’” Felhofer said.
Greenwood’s teachers are also being told not to report to school, although they will be called back when it becomes apparent that classes will resume.
“We’re trying to make sure we’re not increasing potential spread in the area,” he said.
As the school is closed, the custodial staff will be doing anything it can for sanitation.
“We’re obviously in the process of doing a clean,” Felhofer said. “We want to get everything wiped down and clean.”
Granton also held classes on Monday, then closed. District Administrator Scott Woodington said more definite plans will be made once more is known.
“Things are changing, we definitely don’t know what we will be doing moving forward,” Woodington said. “The CDC and health departments are updating daily and it seems even hourly at times. We’re going to wait and plan accordingly to what information we receive.”
Free breakfast/lunches Something local schools will continue to do through the coronavirus closure is provide breakfast and lunch for students. The food service staffs will be in their kitchens, preparing meals that will be sent out to any child age 18 or younger (not just those who qualify for free and reduced price lunches).
Loyal will deliver the meals in the community each day, stopping at the Loyal Town Hall from 9-9:45 a.m., the Sherman Town Hall from 10-10:45 a.m., the Beaver Town Hall from 11:15-noon, and the Loyal Elementary office from 12:15-1 p.m. Someone from the school will be there with a vehicle to bring breakfasts/lunches to whoever requests them, and to exchange assignments between students and teachers.
“People don’t even have to get out of their cars,” Lacke said.
Greenwood is distributing free lunches/ breakfasts to any family who would like them, Monday-Friday, between 7 a.m.-noon at the elementary school, and from 7-10 a.m. at the Willard Community Center. Felhofer said they are available in a pre-packed “grab and go style” and parents can contact the school to order them. On Tuesday, the food staff sent out 87 packages.
Granton is also planning a delivery of meals to students, and has contacted families with pertinent information.
Endreas said Spencer will do the same, delivering meals to usual bus stops in the village at appointed times. Any family requesting meals should notify the school by e-mail.
Endreas said the “meals on wheels” program was initiated by the school food service staff, and is an example of how the school community is responding positively to the situation. Teachers are working on creative ways to continue education, he said, and there’s a positive vibe through the building despite the closure.
“I’m so proud of our people,” Endreas said. “I don’t know that there’s been a prouder day that I’ve had in the district than today. Everyone is just pulling together. This is a tough situation, but it’ll probably be our best.”
Lacke said Loyal will use part of the break to make sure the school is as sanitized as possible when students do return.
“Teachers are going to spend part of their time cleaning their own rooms from top to bottom,” he said.
Although the state-mandated closure is difficult, Lacke said he’s glad it was done before any people with coronavirus were in the building. If that were the case, everything would change.
“If something (coronavirus) would come into our building, now the whole cleaning and sanitation goes to a whole new level,” he said.
The overall response to COVID-19 has already gone to that “new level.” Lacke said he recalls once years ago during his time as a building principal when a chicken pox outbreak may have closed school for a day or two, but nothing of this magnitude.
“Nobody has ever seen anything like this,” he said. “I don’t remember the state shutting everybody down.”
Endreas, too, said this is all new territory. Spencer closed once years ago for a day right before the Christmas break due to a flu outbreak but any past response he has seen has been “not even close” to this.
“It’s just been crazy,” he said.
Felhofer said school officials at this point are responding to new information as it comes in, and trying to make the best decisions based on what is known. It’s new ground for all.
“I don’t think any of us have” seen anything like this, he said, “especially with no end point in sight.”
“Nobody has ever seen anything like this. I don’t remember the state shutting everybody down.” -- Loyal School District Administrator Mark Lacke