Verona Area School District administrative building March 2020.

District changes course on reopening, prepares for five-day in-person education

As district staff “took the temperature” of its families with a survey about how the schools could reopen in September, they found there was a feverish desire to return students to school five days a week.

Those survey results prompted the district to consider a different means of reopening.

Instead of planning for a blended model – being in-person two days a week and being virtual the rest of the time – staff told the Verona Area Board of Education at its Monday, July 6, meeting it was also planning for a scenario that would bring K-12 students back all five days on a proposed start date of Wednesday, Sept. 8.

The board didn’t take any action on the plan Monday night, and the five-day-a-week option for K-12 (and four days a week for Pre-K students) might not be the final plan. Board members plan to meet in a special meeting Monday, July 13, to further discuss what reopening might look like.

The proposed plan had some exceptions and caveats, including that any families who don’t feel comfortable sending their children to school – between 10-12% of survey respondents – can keep them home and choose a virtual learning only option. It also would require any children who are transported to school on the bus to wear a mask because of the lack of air circulation.

Of the 3,300 households in the district, 2,500 English-speaking families submitted responses, as did 200 Spanish-speaking families, assistant superintendent of academic services Laurie Burgos told the board. The survey asked families about their level of comfort in having their children go back to school in-person compared with a virtual only option, as well as the hygiene and mask protocols they would like to see.

“What that tells us is that families, first of all, were really needing to get some information from us, and wanting to share their feelings about reopening for the fall,” she said. “We wanted to take the temperature of our community in terms of how do families feel about if we were to recommend that their child wear a mask so we can bring more children back to school, or if we were to require it as a district.”

Under the plan presented Monday, masks would be strongly encouraged for staff and students in the buildings, but not required. Of the families who responded to the survey, 83% said they would be comfortable with their children wearing a mask during the school day if they were requested; 92% said yes if masks were required.

Families whose children are in choice programs like Two-Way Immersion or the district’s three charter school options would have less of a choice, because of staff limitations. They would need to either attend school in-person or drop out of the program for a year and instead follow the district’s virtual learning program.

Some classes could be offered for high school students that would be a hybrid between in-person learning and online.

That option was based on feedback received from families who thought their children had a strong end to the spring semester while doing virtual learning during the school closure, Burgos said. Around 80% of high school families responded that their children would be interested in a blended model for some of their classes.

As for the curriculum for the fall, Burgos said, the focus would be on accelerating students into their new grade’s curriculum, with a strong emphasis on social emotional learning concepts, rather than going back and remediating material that was lost when schools were ordered to close in mid-March.

“Our students will be getting back together not just after a summer break, but after not interacting with each other or teachers for many, many months,” she said.

Burgos told the board the district is also planning for what a potential extended closure of one or more of the schools might look like if required. During the H1N1 pandemic in 2009, New Century School had to close on a short-term basis after more than one-third of the students were home sick with flu-like symptoms.

“We know we have to be nimble with our plans and be able to pivot to virtual learning quickly in case of a short-term closure,” she said. “We are also improving on the model we had last spring, which was really an emergency model of virtual learning.”

As of Monday night, district staff were still lacking what guidance and requirements were going to be required by Public Health Madison and Dane County and the state Department of Health Services, which is a key part of bringing students back for fall, superintendent Dean Gorrell said.

He told the board he and other school district superintendents have attended meetings with representatives from PHMDC and have pressed for that guidance to be made public.