Back to (virtual) school

Lily and Finley Holmes are ready for the virtual start to the fall semester, which kicked off Sept. 1.

A school year unlike any other started Sept. 1 in the Stoughton Area School District, with students, teachers and parents continuing to adapt to virtual learning.

With Dane County regulations keeping all but K-2 students out of schools for the time being, the district has opted for an all-virtual start, emphasizing more interaction with teachers and peers in smaller groups, intended to keep students more focused and accountable.

At the school board meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 8, district director of curriculum Kate Ahlgren outlined the learning goals for what the district has termed “enhanced virtual learning” this fall. Those include getting students to be engaged in learning appropriate for their grade level, holding them to standards that further and expand their options in and beyond school, and “assigning meaningful activities that are equitably assessed and supported in students’ physical, social/emotional and mental health needs.”

This week, district officials planned to meet to assess the feasibility of bringing small groups of K-2 students into the three elementary schools, which is allowed based on the county’s Emergency Order #9. Ahlgren told board members the district is seeking to do that, depending on COVID-19 data, though the transition would require advance notification and planning for affected staff and families.

“We do want — as our metrics allow us — to develop opportunities for small group and in-person learning as we progress through whatever the remote learning environment may hold for us,” she said. “While also prioritizing our instructional vulnerable learning and looking at that through an equity lens.”

In the meantime, the schools are focusing on working with smaller groups of students to increase personal attention and accountability, with the high school and middle school returning to an A-F grading scale from the “pass-fail” mode this spring.

At Stoughton High School, students are divided into two groups for live instruction in the morning on a rotational basis (“A” Day, “B” Day), with afternoons set for watching recorded lessons or completing work. Virtual support available Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, with weekly staff professional development or meeting time set aside from 12:30-4:30 p.m. on Wednesdays

SHS principal Mike Kruse said splitting students into cohorts (based on last names starting with A-L or M-Z) for a two-day rotation will be an improvement from this spring in live instruction time.

“We had to figure out how to get them together in a meaningful way for synchronous time, which does not have 30 kids in a classroom,” he said. “If you’ve ever conducted a big Zoom meeting, it’s kind of difficult. We wanted to make sure we had that cut down in which our staff could engage with students on an every other day or a daily basis.”

With the new rotation, students can cut down on unnecessary screen time, logging in three or four times a day instead of seven, Kruse said.

At River Bluff Middle School, principal Trish Gates said staff are focusing on supporting students during the all-virtual restart, and keeping them engaged and excited about learning.

Based on parent and staff feedback, to reduce screen time, there will be scheduled breaks away from computers, and more use of books. All grades (6-8) will offer daily instruction in reading and math, as well as opportunities for small group counseling.

“We really wanted our schedule and instructional this fall to be vigorous and support students,” she said. “We know there was some unfinished learning left from the spring, and we really wanted to focus on that.”

Gates said they also want to focus on achievement, as well.

“We will really be focusing and spending time on assessments for learning,” she said. “We know there are some gaps, and we really want to be working with all of our students to end that.”

At the elementary level, students have live “core” lessons in English/language arts, reading and math) at consistent morning times, recorded for students unable to attend live. One teacher is primarily responsible for math, another for English/language arts and another for teaching phonics, handwriting and science/social studies

Afternoons feature specialist lessons in music, art, and physical education and live intervention for students needing additional support.

“Overall, it really is about supporting our students and having them enjoy as best they can this experience,” Gates said.

Email Unified Newspaper Group reporter Scott De Laruelle at