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Spencer school planning 4-day-per-week reopening

With less than two weeks remaining before the start of the new year on Sept. 1, Spencer School District administrators and staff are preparing to have students in classrooms with teachers four days per week, with a variety of precautions in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19. That plan could change at a moment’s notice with a virus surge, but District Administrator Mike Endreas is hopeful the school can return to in-person instruction for the first time in five months.

Spencer’s reopening plan calls for students to be in class on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, and be engaged in online activities on “virtual Wednesdays.” That will give the school staff one day per week for deep cleaning to keep the virus at bay as developments with COVID-19’s spread determines how the school year will play out.

Endreas said the Spencer staff is preparing itself for as much virtual learning as may be needed in the event there is a local COVID-19 outbreak. The district is awaiting further word from the state Department of Public Instruction and Department of Health Services as it makes local decisions on bringing students and teachers back together.

Endreas said the relative risk level of COVID-19 is now being charted on a county- level, but DPI and DHS plan to identify it at the school district level to provide more accurate data for communities. As of now, Endreas said, census tract numbers indicate there are few COVID-19 cases in the Spencer area, but Marathon County is still rated at a high risk level. The school district is making its plans and preparing to change them if told it should.

“We’re patiently awaiting more of that information to come to us so we can evaluate that situation,” Endreas said. “Unless they tell us otherwise, we’ll be looking to go face-to-face.”

Spencer was relatively well-prepared in March when the state suddenly closed all schools as COVID-19 cases began to surface. It was already developing a plan to teach students in an online format on weather postponement days, so it was well on its way to a workable system when COVID struck. Time this summer has been spent tweaking the system.

“We still found inconsistencies and measures to improve as we evaluated that,” Endreas said of last spring’s virtual education. “Now it’s more focused on the recipient piece. We’re trying to create a consistent system. We’re trying to make it easier for parents to operate.”

With the virtual system ready to go if needed, Spencer administrators and staff still believe the best way for students to learn is in a classroom with first-hand instruction. That’s why the decision was made to forge ahead with the face-to-face option, with the mid-week off day, a face mask mandate, social distancing, etc.

Students will receive more instruction this year from their teachers on how the online educational system will work on Wednesdays, or how it might work if the school would be shut down again. When the school was closed abruptly in March, there was almost no time to instruct students on how the online system would work. Now, Endreas said, teachers can work with students on early Mondays-Tuesdays to prepare them for the virtual Wednesdays, and then review the system on Thursdays-Fridays. If COVID-19 spreads suddenly and the school is closed, everyone should be prepared for a full virtual program.

“All in all, we’re trying to prepare for the worst case scenario that we’ll have to go all virtual,” Endreas said.

If nothing changes between now and Sept. 1, students will return to the classrooms on that Tuesday with a new set of rules. All students and staff will be required to wear face coverings, unless a medical reason prevents it. Students who have mask issues may be given a face shield to wear instead. Endreas said the district made the decision to require masks even before Gov. Tony Evers declared a statewide executive mask order.

Social distancing protocols will also be followed.

“We have measured all of our classrooms to determine the load capacity of all the classrooms,” Endreas said.

Bell schedules will be altered so classes will be released at staggered times to decrease crowd sizes in hallways. In the high school, rather than group all lockers from the same grade level in one area, locker assignments will be staggered between grade levels. That way, when all freshmen, for example, are released from a class period, they will not be clustered together at lockers.

“Two people should never really be next to each other when they’re at their lockers,” Endreas said.

Each student will also have their temperature scanned as they enter the school in the morning, with those who show a high fever to be separated and sent home with a parent. Endreas said temperatures may also be scanned as students board buses, and physical separation will be enforced on bus routes. Buses will also stagger drop-off times to reduce congestion.

Endreas said the district will continue to work with health agencies and internally to change any practices that are deemed necessary to cope with evolving situations.

“It’s going to be a moving target to begin with,” he said. “Our main goal right now is to reduce the risk for our kids.”

Endreas also said some staff members are concerned with a return to the classroom, especially those who have a family member at home who may be at a higher health risk. The district will work with each one individually when it can.

“We’re going to make arrangements for them to teach virtually whenever possible,” Endreas said.