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Five days a week school in Athens

Five days a week school in  Athens Five days a week school in  Athens

Committee plan amended

The Athens Board of Education on Monday voted to hold in-person classes and distance learning five days a week, rejecting an administration COVID-19 plan developed with a 10-member committee over summer to hold inperson classes Monday through Friday for elementary students but only two days a week for middle school and high school students.

Superintendent Jeff Mastin said he would support any reopening plan the school board wants, but, responding to a question from board member Julie Guenther, predicted that teachers would resign rather than teach in classrooms where students would not be properly socially distanced. “Teachers will weigh the situation more seriously,” he said. “You will have some resignations.”

Mastin, along with elementary school principal Joy Redmann and middle school/high school principal Juli Gauerke-Peter, presented the administration reopening plan to board members and a group of citizens, arguing that while a lack of childcare in the Athens area persuaded them that elementary school students needed access to five-day per week instruction, high school and middle school students, who are better able to care for themselves, would be safer having in-person classes only two days a week.

Board member Steve Janke, however, would have none of it. He moved, in a motion crafted with Tom Ellenbecker, Jr., to amend the administration plan to include the option of middle school and high school in-person classes five days a week. The plan received unanimous board support.

In a question and answer period following presentation of the plan, various citizens questioned the two-day per week instruction plan for middle and high schoolers, repeatedly reminding board members that an 80 percent majority of parents surveyed called for reopening school in the fall and that this majority should rule.

District resident Lori Ellenbecker laid out the case for five days a week inperson instruction and, in the end, received applause from the audience.

She said the school district could work to keep students safe from COVID- 19, but if in-person classes are not required, students would work to earn money rather than pursue their education.

She said this is what happened during the spring school lockdown. “I know for a fact students worked five days a week, eight hours a day and did their school work at night,” she said. “They should do their school work.”

Ellenbecker said that Athens would be an outlier among neighboring districts, including Marathon, Medford, Abbotsford and Edgar, who will all offer either four or five days of per week inperson instruction this fall.

She argued that students have spent the summer with their friends without observing any social distancing and yet there is not recorded a single COVID-19 death among young people in Marathon County ages 0-19. She chastised board members for attending graduation and family parties all summer without wearing masks and now contemplating keeping students home three days per week with virtual learning.

Finally, Ellenbecker argued there would be downsides for students not to have in-person instruction this coming school year.

“Two days are not enough for our students,” she said. “I would hate for any child to get sick, but I would hate, too, seeing a child commit suicide or fall into depression. Life is about taking risks.”

In the approved plan, Athens students will all be able to attend school in-person, over the internet with live or recorded classes or through the Rural Virtual Academy, Medford. Pre-kindergarten students will attend school either two or three days per week.

Masks will be mandatory while riding the school bus, Mastin said, but only recommended for in-school instruction because students can have various medical reasons not to wear them. He clarifi ed that Fischer Transportation set the school bus mask policy, not the school district.

The superintendent said parents indicated on a survey they would check students daily for signs of COVID-19 and the district will hold parents to that pledge. He said that means school bus drivers will not have to take student temperatures and can concentrate on driving bus.

Mastin said teachers will all use a computer program, Schoolology, to present online school lessons. This uniformity should help parents work with students at home, he said. The superintendent said all district teachers have been trained to use the new program.

In a back and forth discussion with audience members, Mastin said a reopening committee agreed to the twoday in person upper grades schedule based on Marathon County being labeled a “high risk” county for COVID-19 and the difficulty of social distancing at Athens High School.

“We thought that bringing all of the kids back was virtually impossible,” he said. “We looked at the locker rooms, the flow of the building and concluded this was the best plan for Athens. We thought this through carefully.”

Mastin noted that the threat of COVID- 19 was not theoretical, but real. He noted a case was confirmed one-eighth of a mile from Athens High School.

“COVID is right outside our front door,” he said. “We don’t want that amount of risk.”

Mastin said he did not want to repeat the situation where students and teaching staff contracted COVID-19 in a school reopened in Georgia without proper social distancing.