Schools switch to four-day weeks
Abby, Colby districts both leave open possibility of five days
To the delight of many parents, the Colby School Board voted Monday to have students return to school for four days a week of in-person classes this fall.
Board members also agreed to proceed with the fall sports seasons as recommended by the WIAA, and to consider a full five-day week at their next meeting.
Monday’s decision reverses one made a month earlier that would have split the student body into two groups, or cohorts, and had each cohort come to school for two days a week. For the remaining three days, students would have received online instruction at home.
This didn’t sit well with many parents, who said last spring’s unexpected jump to virtual learning deprived their kids of the full school experience.
“They’re not getting the education they deserve with online schooling,” said Colleen Halopka, a mother of three students. “It doesn’t compare to face-to-face schooling.”
The newly approved plan maintains Wednesday as a day for students to stay Colby
at home while school facilities are deepcleaned and teachers attend in-service training and host virtual office hours.
Parents who are worried about sending their students back to school due to COVID-related health concerns will still have the option of online-only instruction.
Seven parents spoke in favor of the four-day week at Monday’s meeting, which drew a lot of mask-wearing audience members to the high school theatre to hear the discussion.
The possibility of not having fall sports under a two-day-a-week schedule was a major concern for many parents, who said they worried about their kids’ mental and physical health if they were stuck at home most of the time.
Travis Boyer said he doesn’t want to see Colby be the only district in the local sports conferences to cancel its fall sports seasons due to COVID-19 concerns.
“I don’t think it’s going to benefit the kids longterm by trying to keep them out of school and out of sports,” he said.
Boyer acknowledged that it won’t be easy to have school and sports in session with COVID cases still looming, but he thinks it’s possible with some extra help.
“The worst-case scenario is that it gets shut down,” he said.
Boyer, whose sister is Clark County public health director Brittany Mews, said it’s not the case that her department would only sign off on a two-day model, as suggested at the last meeting.
“If that’s ultimately what you guys decide, that’s fine, but I would just say take credit for it, and don’t try to push it off on the health department,” he said. “She got an awful lot of backlash for it, and I would say not deservedly so.”
Later in the meeting, superintendent Steve Kolden took ownership for the proposal to have two cohorts attend two days a week, rather than all face-to-face or online-only options.
“That was my recommendation to the board in July,” he said. “We did talk about the three options, but I steered that conversation.”
Kolden also noted that, no matter what the board decides, there will always be people who are unhappy with the decision. He said there is no such thing as “one best answer” because every option has its advantages and drawbacks.
When speaking to the board, mother of four Maegan Kaiser said she believes the benefits of more in-person instruction outweigh the risks of COVID-19.
“The risks of going back to school are potential — someone may get sick, there may be a spread, there may be a shutdown — but the risks of not sending the kids back to school have already been evident,” she said.
Kaiser said last spring’s online-only education left a lot of students struggling, to the point where the board needed to change grading policies and make exemptions. She also noted that 58 families reported in a recent district survey that they have poor or no internet service.
“That’s definitely going to affect their ability to distance-learn,” she said.
Parent Matt Oehmichen provided board members with a barrage of statistics showing that COVID fatality rates have plummeted locally while recovery rates have gone up. He also cited studies from Europe indicating that reopening schools has not significantly contributed to more COVID outbreaks.
Oehmichen also pointed to a survey of high school athletes in Wisconsin, which suggested that as many as 66,000 studentathletes are suffering from mental health problems due to COVID shutdowns. He said cancelling the fall sports season would be “beyond damaging.”
“It gives our young men and women here social involvement, a sense of accomplishment and pride. When that is taken away, they are feeling isolated,” he said. “Sure, they will be physically safe, lying home in their beds, but without sports or school, what gives them a reason to get out of that bed?”
At the end of the public comment period, a faculty member provided a different perspective on the issue.
Nathan Larsen, the high school band director and volleyball coach, said he applauded the board’s decision last month because it took into consideration the health and safety of both staff and students.
“I would still prefer the cohorts, not for my health and safety, but for the health and safety of that student who goes home and lives with their grandparents, those staff members who are dealing with spouses that have health issues,” he said.
Larsen said he has only seen his family once since March, and still feels reluctant to visit them in Kenosha or Illinois because of the higher case numbers in those areas. He said he will go along with whatever the board decides, but he hopes there is better planning in place.
“Teachers want to be in front of students,” he said. “The way we ended last year was terrible. It didn’t work, we were under-prepared for it, and it surprised us. It was unprecedented.”
The board decides
Board members ultimately sided with the majority of audience members who wanted to see four days a week of inperson instruction, but they also had a lot of questions about holding in-person classes during the age of COVID-19.
Cheryl Ploeckelman wanted to know at what point the district would be forced to shut down its schools if students or staff started to test positive.
Kolden said the county health department will contact the district if there any positive test results, and contact tracing will be done to determine who has been exposed to the virus.
“That contact tracing is going to tell us what we have to shut down,” he said. “If it’s a child who’s only been at the elementary, I don’t know that I need to shut down the entire district.”
Board member Teri Hanson said her family just returned from a trip to Pennsylvania, where school is being held five days a week with masking and other precautions in place. She said she would like to see a similar system in Colby, with five days a week.
However, she also questioned what would happen if a staff member got the virus.
Kolden said individuals who test positive will have to be quarantined at home, and he worries about losing entire grade levels’ worth of teachers if they have frequent contact with each other.
“It’s going to be the recommendation from Clark County,” he said. “I’m not going to quarantine anybody.”
Kolden said he believes it’s inevitable that some students or staff will test posi- Colby
tive for COVID-19 at some point, and that’s why he initially recommended two cohorts — to decrease the possibility of having to shut down the entire district.
Adjustments can be made to cut back on student contacts, like block scheduling and having students stay in one classroom throughout the day, but Kolden said nothing is fool-proof.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he said. “If we’re putting 20 kids in a classroom, we’re not socially distancing. We’re not even coming close.”
Board member Eric Elmhorst said he thinks the district should “lean heavily” on what the health department says, rather than people who don’t have expertise, when making decisions going forward.
Hanson said the board should also be seeking input from community members and staff, noting that a public hearing should really have been held back in May or June.
“Communication has been the thing that’s been missing throughout this whole process,” she said.
Board member Todd Schmidt made the motion to bring students back to school for four days a week, to follow the WIAA’s revised recommendations for fall sports seasons and reconsider a five-day week next month.
“Personally, I don’t think I’m quite ready to go to five days, and I don’t think the district is either, but I think four days is a good compromise, at least for a month,” Schmidt said. “We can see where we’re at next month and go to five days if we need to.”
_ Due to the possibility of shortened or cancelled sports seasons this school year, the board voted to waive all athletic fees for 2020-2021. Former athletic director Jim Hagen said the fees usually bring in between $8,000 and $10,000 every school year, but it was “a nightmare” refunding them after schools were closed in March.
The motion also temporarily modified the district's athletic code so that students who are academically ineligible will miss 20 percent of their athletic contests, rather than a set number of days.
_ The board accepted the resignation of Michelle Maurina as a food service cook.
_ The board approved the hiring of Tara Nigon as an elementary reading inverventionist, Janet Kunze as a food service cook, and Cheryl Beyerl as a computer aide for the middle school food service.
_ During his superintendent’s report, Kolden said Colby students were able to earn a total of 561 college credits at Northcentral Technical College last school year, saving their parents $84,458 in tuition costs.
_ Kolden told the board that replacing all of the doors at the high school this summer cost a total of $64,400, which was $11,000 under the original estimate.
_ The board approved a new contract with Hudl, a company that records sports games for coaches. The new two-year, $10,749 contract will include the installation of a camera in high school gym, which will allow games and other events to be live-streamed.
_ During closed session, Kolden informed the board that he provided high school Spanish teacher Allie Kolb with a $3,664 annual raise in order to match a competing offer from another school district.