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COVID-19 clouds future for area schools

Medford School Board looks at accountability, sets graduation date

With districts across the state closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, education looks different than it has in the past.

However, district administrator Pat Sullivan on Monday assured members of the Medford School Board that education was continuing for the vast majority of students.

Discussion and concerns over if and how students are learning, accountability for grades and what they can look forward to in the future dominated discussion at the regular monthly school board meeting.

The discussion was sparked with the public hearing a vote to formally request a waiver from the state’s mandated number of minutes of instruction, education effectiveness mandates, civics exam mandates and the community service graduation requirement. Holding the public hearing and requesting the waivers provides additional protection for the school district despite the governor’s order that schools across the state are closed through the end of the school year. Medford was scheduled to have its last day of school on May 22, however the order extends through the month of June.

As board president Dave Fleegel noted the waivers are automatic, but districts must request them so as to not risk state aid in the future.

Board member DeDe Strama questioned if districts that were requiring work to be done by students were seeking the waiver. Board member Cheryl Wibben echoed that question citing nearby districts such as Colby and Merrill where students are being required to complete assignments for grades.

District administrator Pat Sullivan said was doubtful that these districts were actually teaching new material. “If these schools are claiming they are teaching new materials in the fourth quarter, I don’t believe it,” he said. Strama said she was concerned with how the district presented the information to parents and students that anything beyond the time the governor’s order was optional.

“When you start the conversation that none of this is required that is the first thing students hear,” Strama said.

“We didn’t start the conversation like that, but when we were asked we didn’t lie about it,” Sullivan said.

At the high school level, the third quarter grade was treated as the final grade for the second semester. Students have been given the opportunity to continue working to improve those grades. In addition, there are classes that are continuing such as Advanced Placement which has its national tests in mid-May and Project Lead the Way.

Board member John Zuleger said that for his fourthgrader, his family is viewing this time as being similar to summer school and the work being done is so that the students don’t fall behind and can be ready to hit the books for real come fall. He praised the teachers saying that all have been doing a fantastic job.

Each of the building principals highlighted what is going on with education there with Dan Milller at the elementary school estimating that about a quarter of the students in any class are not able to participate in the learning programs for whatever reason while 75 percent are actively engaged. But other efforts are being made to reach out to these students and their families.

At the middle school, Al Leonard reported that they are sending out progress reports showing how students are doing and noted that 83 percent of students in the eighth grade are at grade level in math and 80 percent are at grade level in English/language arts. He said the participation in programs such as family and consumer education, physical education and choir are lower.

For Fleegel, it comes down to how much involvement the parents are willing to have and how much they are pushing the students at home. “The parents are still the parents,” he said.

As far as students not doing their work, it was noted there are a certain amount even during the regular brick and mortar class that sit there and refuse to do their work too.

Board member Brian Hallgren cautioned against being too centered on the high school. He said the teachers at all levels are doing a tremendous job. He was more concerned with what could happen in the future when it comes to if school is not ready to be reopened in the fall.

Hallgren said it is too late to wait until July to figure out what instruction will look like if traditional schooling is not able to restart in the fall.

“The fall will look different than it has in the past,” Sullivan agreed. One option the administrative team is looking at is if students are able to come back in the building in August having a more beefed up summer school, including bussing, at that point to help make sure kids are able to be at grade level. Sullivan cautioned that even at that point they could not require students to attend, but would encourage them to.

Sullivan said a bigger question will be how to cover the expense including additional instructional time by teachers and bussing. As another potential dark cloud, with state revenues projected to be down due to the economic shutdown, there is talk this could negatively impact state aids which could lead to lower funding from the state for schools.

Hallgren called for the issue to be brought up each month on the agenda so that a general plan is available.

“You can have a great road map, but it could get torn up every month,” Fleegel said. “There is no doubt that the only thing that is constant is change.”

In related action, board members:

_ Approved the request for foreign exchange students for next year. Fleegel noted that foreign travel may not be resumed by that point. Board member Paul Dixon went further. “Why would anyone want to come to the Unites States?” he said noting the country has had nearly 25 percent of the deaths in the world from COVID-19.

_ Approved setting the date for the graduation ceremony for August 7. Fleegel said he would have preferred to see it set earlier. Board member Oralee Dittrich said it was important to families to have a date picked in order to plan ahead.

_ Had no objection to considering high school seniors who have completed their classes as being “graduates” for the purpose of applying for jobs, union memberships, or the military. Sullivan said the district has gotten a handful of requests to clarify this and noted that for those who are entering the workforce, this gives them the opportunity to move on with their lives.