In “normal” times, the opening of a spacious, modern elementary school in a fast-growing area of the school district would be the biggest thing to look forward to in the new school year.

Instead, the 2020-21 school year that starts Tuesday, Sept. 8 – a week later than previously scheduled, to provide more prep time – will be all virtual as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. That means the schools will largely be empty as teachers and students start the fall semester in the same place they ended last spring – at home.

So as district officials adjust to the rapidly changing “new normal,” the Observer’s list of things to watch for the 2020-21 school year is different from most years.

Our No. 1 story, of course, is the all-virtual restart and the preparations district staff and parents will have to make for the possibility some students return to class in the coming weeks and that they could all be sent home afterward.

Related to that story is the now essential expansion of technology to create a 1:1 ratio – one school-issued device per student.Ranked lower than anyone had originally expected, No. 3 is the opening of a new school in Fitchburg, Forest Edge Elementary, which will be mostly empty for the time being.

The next two stories, 4 and 5, both resulted from the new school – changing attendance boundaries and coordinating start times among all the schools in the district.

Finally, the district has made new options available for meals outside of schools, including delivery. That’s something that started with the March shutdown of schools to ensure students who depend on free lunches at schools still have access to them.

1. Virtual start

This summer, Oregon decided on an all virtual start, with the potential of some small-group instruction for grades K-4, but had the district planned to have some grades taught in-person or provide in-person support from the start, it would have been superseded by a county order. Public Health Madison-Dane County Order No. 9, issued Friday, Aug. 21, allows in-person pupil instruction with social distancing and other health precautions for K-2 students only.

Small group instruction and other supports for older grades could be available as the school year progresses depending on COVID-19 metrics.

District superintendent Leslie Bergstrom addressed some of the impacts of that order in a letter sent to parents Friday, Aug. 28. In particular, she wrote that it changed the district’s plans to offer in-person education to students in grades K-4 as part of it’s “Phased Restart” option, chosen by around two-thirds of families.

“(Now), students in grades 3 and 4 who chose the Phased Restart option will begin their small group cohorts online and will phase to in-person cohorts as soon as guidance allows,” she wrote. “We will continue to offer Oregon Online for those who prefer a full online option, and the Phased Restart approach in accordance with public health metrics.”

Given the timing of the Aug. 21 county COVID-19 stats, K-2 students in the restart plan could return as soon as Monday, Sept. 14. Bergstrom said the plan would be to keep those students in “really small groups” for short sessions to get them used to physical distancing, hygiene and wearing masks.

“Once we are feeling confident they can do this well … we will increase in-person instruction,” she told the school board at its Aug. 24 meeting.

Based on county health guidelines, students in grades 3-5 might be able to return as soon as October if the average of daily new cases stays below 39 for four weeks in a row, Begstrom said, though students in grades 6-12 would likely not be able to return until November. The county’s threshold of average daily new cases is much lower for grades 6-12.

2. 1:1 Technology ratio

With around $1.2 million left over in revenues from last year’s budget that ended June 30, in July, the Oregon School Board wasted no time in purchasing 625 tablets for K-2 students and 580 Chromebooks for Oregon High School students.

With the move, all K-12 students now have access to a device when classes begin Tuesday, Sept. 2.

Previously, the district has had a 1:1 student-to-device ratio in grades 3-8, but with the recent necessity of virtual learning, providing them to younger students was a must. The tablets are easier to operate than keyboards for younger students, said district communications director Erika Mundinger, and using them in early grades will better prepare everyone for future online learning.

“The need to provide access at home changed, in that an online learning format became essential with the pandemic,” she wrote the Observer in an email then. “We still believe that hands-on, face to face learning is best, but when that is not possible, this technology gives us more options.”

In March, The district distributed Chromebooks that week in a drive-through format to ensure students had the proper technology. Prior to the pandemic, the district had Chromebooks strategically allocated around OHS for students to share as needed, Mundinger said, but when the schools closed, some lost access to those.

OHS now has a Chromebook for every student, which can be sent home with them if needed.

3. New school

An expansive 130,00-square-foot building with a design and name emphasizing the area’s natural look, the new Forest Edge Elementary School is a sight to behold — and still will be whenever everyone gets to move in.

Featuring an outdoor classroom, planting beds and a school forest, the school is believed to be the first “net zero” public school in Wisconsin, producing more energy through solar power and geothermal technology than it uses. The project was funded by the $47 million November 2018 referenda approved by nearly a 2-to-1 margin.

Groundbreaking at 4848 Brassica Road site was held June 6, 2019. Since, the district has hired long-time Brooklyn Elementary leader Kerri Modjeski as the school’s first principal, with around 45 staff members and – eventually – around 360 students.

While it will be the district’s fourth elementary school, for the time being, it will be a bit different — and bigger — than its K-4 counterparts at Brooklyn, Netherwood and Prairie View. Forest Edge students won’t attend Rome Corners Intermediate School when they move into grades 5-6, as FES is a K-6.

However, that is likely to change in a few years, as the district has purchased land with plans for a new middle school also in Fitchburg. If or when that school is built – likely within the next several years – it would be a grades 6-8 middle school, and OMS would also convert to that, with the four elementary schools switching to a K-5 format.

4. New boundaries

With rapid growth expected in the northern part of the district and a new elementary school set to open in summer, the Oregon School Board approved new elementary school attendance boundaries in December 2019The move was the last step in a process that started that spring when a committee comprising staff, administrators and parents and chaired by then-deputy superintendent Leslie Bergstrom started working on redefining the boundaries.

Criteria including transportation safety/efficiency and keeping students in an attendance zone for the school closest to where they live. The approved plan included three parameters: students would go to the school closest to their home, an exemption process would be available to families, and there would be “simplified” busing zones for each attendance area.

The new map divides the district laterally into thirds, with students in the top portion – roughly the northern portion of the City of Fitchburg and Town of Dunn – going to the new Fitchburg K-6 school. Students in the “middle” section – the southern half of Fitchburg and Dunn, down to Lincoln Road/Janesville streets in the Village of Oregon – would attend Prairie View or Netherwood Knoll elementaries in the Village of Oregon, and Rome Corners Intermediate. Students living south of the Lincoln Road/Janesville Street line would attend Brooklyn Elementary and RCI.

5. Coordinated start and end times

Addressing concern about the effects of earlier start times on younger students – and later end times on older ones with after school jobs – the Oregon School Board reached a compromise on new, coordinated start and end times for all buildings.

The changes, approved in March after months of discussion and listening sessions, were spurred by the opening of Forest Edge Elementary and the additional transportation coordination it requires. Most importantly, district officials used the opportunity to synchronize the school days of grades K-6 and 7-12 students into separate time frames without drastically affecting the old schedules.

The change added 10 minutes to the elementary school days, which previously had starting times at either 8 or 8:05 a.m. ending times at 2:50 or 2:55 p.m. It took 20 minutes from RCI’s school day, which had been 7:50 a.m. to 3:10 p.m.

The OMS school day has added five minutes as it moves from its former 7:55 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. schedule, while the OHS day has added 15 minutes to the former 8:35 a.m. to 3:50 p.m. school day.

Brooklyn, Forest Edge, Netherwood and Prairie View K-4 elementaries and Rome Corners Intermediate (grades 5-6) now have seven-hour days for students, running from 7:50 a.m. to 2:50 p.m. Oregon Middle School (7-8) and Oregon High School (9-12) students have an additional 15 minutes in their school days, which run from 8:35 a.m. to 3:50 p.m.

6. New meal delivery and pickup options

Based on parent feedback, the district will begin breakfast and lunch meal options on Tuesday, Sept. 8, via curbside pickup at Netherwood/Prairie View elementary schools (276/300 Soden Drive) daily, as well as a delivery option to a location within the district boundaries.

The district will deliver meals to homes or wherever students are within district boundaries, weekdays between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Bergstrom said the plan is to deliver meals daily, though that may change depending on where families live. Families must sign up for this option.

The district will also offer curbside pickup at Netherwood/Prairie View elementary schools from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and 5:30-6:30 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays. Monday and Tuesday meals are available on Monday, while Wednesday, Thursday and Friday meals are available on Wednesday.

Meals will be free for all children (18 and under) through Dec. 31 based on an immediate extension of the nationwide USDA Summer Food Service Program. We encourage all families to participate in this free meal program. Adults may purchase meals for $4/meal.

Meals are prepared and delivered by district nutrition staff, who are ensuring all food is individually wrapped by either the manufacturer or in OSD kitchens. All staff wear gloves, masks, and hairnets, and during meal delivery and pick up, staff will change gloves after any contact with customers (car, doorbell, etc).