DPI envisions schools opening but not full time

Online learning likely to continue as districts weigh scenarios that include classes four days a week, split schedules
Ozaukee Press staff

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction released recommendations this week that anticipate students returning to schools in September but not full time, indicating that online learning will continue to play a role in education until a Covid-19 vaccine is developed and widely available.

The most optimistic of four scenarios recommended by DPI calls for all students to attend classes four days a week.

Another option is to have half of a district’s students attend classes on Mondays and Tuesdays and the other half on Thursdays and Fridays.

Under a third scenario, half the students would attend classes for four days one week while the other half would be in school the following week.

All those scenarios envision schools being closed on Wednesdays so they can be sanitized and for students to be engaged in online learning when not in school. 

A fourth option suggested by DPI is to have elementary school students return to classes early and be disbursed throughout all buildings in the district. Middle and high school students would remain at home and take classes online. 

“I don’t think that is a viable option,” Port Washington-Saukville School Supt. Michael Weber said Tuesday, adding that the district will consider a multitude of other options. 

The DPI recommendations, made in conjunction with educational organizations and health officials, are just that, meaning the extraordinarily complex task of figuring out how to best educate students during the pandemic will fall to individual school districts.

In the Port Washington-Saukville School District, administrators began dissecting the recommendations this week and plan to survey parents and involve teachers in the process of drafting a plan to return students to classrooms in September. That plan is to be completed by the end of July and presented  to the School Board for approval the first week of August to give parents enough time to plan for a new type of school year, Weber said. 

“This is so complex and involved that the plan can’t be put together in isolation,” Weber said. “We have to involve teachers and consider the impact on families.”

Districts in Ozaukee County and the Milwaukee North Shore area are coordinating their planning efforts, he said, but that doesn’t mean their approaches to reopening classrooms will be the same.

“Our plans may have some similarities, but overall I think they will be different,” Weber said. “And our administrative team believes that opening schools in fall will look different at each level — the elementary, middle and high school levels — within our district.”

At the core of planning efforts is the understanding that two months from now when students return to school, the coronavirus will still be a serious public health threat and perhaps a worsening one heading into winter. The DPI is advising districts to plan for 12 to 18 months of modified classes, which means redesigning day-to-day education to accommodate the social distancing of students and staff members, conducting regular health screenings to ensure students and staff members aren’t in schools if they have Covid-19 symptoms and sanitizing buildings frequently. 

The DPI is also recommending that districts be prepared for local, regional or statewide school shut downs if there is a resurgence of infections.

“We could be three months into the school year when another outbreak hits and we’re back to online learning,” Weber said.

Among the logistical challenges facing districts is transportation. Presuming school bus capacities will be reduced to keep students separated, will companies have enough vehicles to transport all students to school daily and can districts afford the extra cost?

“That’s what makes this process as challenging as it is,” Weber said. “There are a number of factors to consider, not the least of which is the financial one.”

Transportation issues make split schedules — ones in which only half the student population attends school on a given day — attractive, but tasking teachers to educate students in their classrooms at the same time they’re teaching others online is also challenging, Weber said.

“If half the students are in classrooms and the other half are online, how do you manage that?” he asked. “There’s a solution, but we don’t know what it is yet.

“What we have to do is make sure we don’t forget the teachers who are on the front lines of working with students.”

The impact of a new school schedule on families who rely on day care when students aren’t in school is another factor to be considered, Weber said.

“Added to all this is the impact on families and day care providers,” he said. “How do families, particularly ones with young children, manage all this, especially when things are opening up and people are going back to work?”

And as the DPI recommendations point out, districts will have to be prepared to accommodate students and staff members who don’t return to school because of concerns about contracting the coronavirus.

“There will be some people who feel a little uncomfortable about having their children return to school,” Weber said. “We’ll have to be prepared for students and staff members who have pre-existing medical conditions that put them at high risk.

“That’s why the plans we put together have to be flexible. Then we need to be flexible enough to change those plans if needed.”


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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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