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Schools still unsure about fall restart

On Monday, the state Department of Public Instruction released an 87-page “Education Forward” document that gives school districts some guidance on how they may reopen this fall. Area school administrators say the new guidelines give them some parameters in which they may work as they decide when and how to restart classes, but the major decisions will still be made locally.

As local administrators and boards of education near the point of making some solid decisions on what school will look like as the 2020-21 year begins, they are gathering input from families, talking to local health officials, and listening to DPI guidance on what may or may not be possible. In Greenwood, even the school start date has yet to be decided, whereas Spencer has decided to begin classes on Sept. 1, in a yet-to-be determined format.

The Greenwood Board of Education will be meeting in special session on June 29 (at 7 p.m. in the high school CWETN Room) to discuss plans for the coming year. It has asked for and received permission to start the school year as early as Aug. 17, but it could still decide to hold off until the legal start date of Sept. 1. There are several factors yet to consider, said District Administrator Todd Felhofer, and the public is being asked to weigh in on a survey that ends this week.

Felhofer said the survey is asking families if they would prefer an earlier start date or if they’d rather wait until Sept. 1. No in-person classes have been held in the district since March 17, and Felhofer said an early start would help get them back on track with normal education. Also, he said, if the district resumes classes a bit early, and the state is forced to close school again if more COVID-19 cases break out, it would have some instructional time already in the books.

“Are we getting ahead of the possible second wave?” he said.

State law dictates that public schools cannot start classes prior to Sept. 1, but Greenwood asked for a waiver to give it another option. If the public prefers an Aug. 17 date and the Board agrees that an earlier start would be beneficial, it may use the waiver.

“We can, but the Board doesn’t have to choose that,” Felhofer said. “The survey, I think, will give the Board a stronger feeling of where it wants to go with this thing.”

Another factor to consider is the current pandemic status. Some states are showing spikes in reported viral illnesses, and the recent reopening of most of the Wisconsin economy could lead to a surge here. Felhofer said he will talk to the county health department again this week to see what recent trends are, and what health officials are advising for the school year start.

“As it’s been since the middle of March, you’ve got a lot of unknowns yet,” he said.

Another consideration for local schools is how the new year will look. Spencer District Administrator Mike Endreas said it could include resumption of full face-toface classes, a combination of in-person classes and virtual learning, or — like it was for the last two months of the 2019-20 school year -- a full-on virtual scenario with students learning online.

Endreas said Spencer will also survey its families, to ask opinions on how they would like to see school restarted.

“We want to kind of get some input from the parents,” Endreas said. “Where do our parents stand in this process?”

The Spencer survey will start soon and be conducted electronically, with information emailed to each family. The responses will be the basis of discussion at the Board’s August meeting.

Endreas said the Board has already decided it will stick with the Sept. 1 start date for students, but that doesn’t necessarily mean students will be in classrooms. That will be determined largely by the course the coronavirus runs in the next several weeks.

“There’s still a lot of uncertainty,” Endreas said. “There could be an uptick again. We may not be able to go face-toface at all.”

“Each individual district is going to have to create the plan that works best for them.” -- Greenwood District Administrator Todd Felhofer Endreas said the guidance released by the DPI on Monday was “not really earth-shattering news” as the state education agency set no mandates. The information was meant as a guideline, and laid out options for returning to school such as a district having students in the building for four days per week, and using the fifth day for deep cleaning. Other mentioned options are having part of the student body attend some days and the rest on others, to limit numbers; or to have elementary-age students return first and have high school students continue with virtual learning.

Endreas said Spencer will take the survey results, add in the latest available health agency recommendations, and make a restart plan by mid-August.

“Ultimately, what we’re going to have to do is present our plan to the county,” he said.

Felhofer also said the DPI guidance is only helpful to a point, as schools still must decide for themselves what is possible. A small school like Greenwood can more easily keep distance between students and teachers because of low numbers, for example.

“What things are possible in each district?” Felhofer said. “The key to that whole thing is it’s a guideline. It’s not a mandate of what we can do. Each individual district is going to have to create the plan that works best for them.”