The Stoughton Area School District’s youngest students will not be returning to in-person school soon.
Citing continued concerns about the dangers to the health of staff, students and the community, the school board voted 7-2 Monday, Oct. 5, against a motion to return to in-person schooling for students in grades K-2.
Tim Bubon and school board president Frank Sullivan voted in favor of Bubon’s motion, which he had made at an Oct. 1 special board meeting on reopening. The vote was postponed until Oct. 5 to provide more time for input.
Monday, board members talked for well over an hour before voting on plans for reopening school. Most said they had weighed concerns about equity and students’ emotional well-being during the period of virtual schooling but felt the concerns about the safety of people in the district was even greater.
“You all know I’m a person who values equity over almost everything, and my thoughts and feelings went in that direction,” said board member Yolibeth Fitzgibbon. “However, I have a responsibility with all students, and with the school community as a whole, and I cannot look away from the fact that this will affect many people.”
Board member Allison Sorg said after initially supporting the motion last week, she is increasingly concerned about rising numbers of county COVID-19 cases.
“The number of cases are actually going up too much, and I think that we’ll get to a point that we’ll be able to reopen, but I’m not sure right now is the time,” she said.
Holly Telander, a former kindergarten teacher, said she had serious reservations about the “realities of K-2 kids socially distancing properly” and the stress and anxiety that goes along with that.
“I have heard from a lot of teachers who are quite frankly afraid of coming back,” she said.
In September, the state Supreme Court ruled Dane County cannot prevent students from attending in-person schooling. The county had declared in August only grades K-2 could attend in person, then later clarified it to include limited exceptions for special education.
Public school districts have continued to abide by the county’s order, which sets metrics for when older students should be allowed to return to school.
Sullivan said because county health officials have said schools can reopen for grades K-2, the board is simply presenting families with a choice whether to return to in person or remain virtual. He said there is a “substantial population for whom virtual learning is going poorly or not at all.”
“The experts say you have a ‘sweet spot’ for teaching children to read and do math; you have a limited amount of time,” Sullivan said. “For our K-2 students, that window is closing. Some of them do not have families who are able to support them and have adequate technology.”
Steve Jackson said while district officials continue to plan for a safe reopening, they should also work on the issues that have arisen with the virtual restart, including preparing a “robust summer program” to help make up for time lost.
“Could we improve our virtual learning? Yep.” he said. “Can we as a school district and community safely reach out to our neighbors in need and support them and their children? Yes we can. (But) I don’t think anyone wants to put the community at higher risk, and I cannot support the K-2 returning to school at this time.”
While COVID-19 positive test numbers are still much higher than before school started, Public Health Madison and Dane County officials have said K-2 schools can remain open.
Based on recommended county metrics, the daily average of new COVID-19 cases should stay at 39 (based on a ratio of 100,000 residents) or less for a four-week span to bring students in grades 3-5 back, and 19 cases for grades 6-12. After a low of 41 on Aug. 27, average cases per week spiked, peaking on Sept. 24 at 179 before falling to 139 on Oct. 1.
“The takeaway is we’re at a very high level in Dane County,” said district superintendent Tim Onsager, who read a Friday, Oct. 1 message from PHMDC.
“While we are seeing some concerning trends in data… we are not seeing strong connections to K-12 environments at this time,” it read.