The comeback is getting closer.
Stoughton K-5 students can return to school five days a week as of Monday, April 5.
Students in grades 6-12 could be next, as administrators will share at the April 5 board meeting a proposal to bring those grades back starting in mid-April.
The Stoughton school board approved plans to increase in-person learning at its Monday, March 15 meeting, with the decision following suggestions made by superintendent Tim Onsager in a letter to families the previous week. Public Health Madison Dane County updated its guidance for schools starting March 10, with one of the key changes in Emergency Order 14 being that students no longer need to stay six feet apart.
The board voted 7-1 for the K-5 return, with Holly Tellander voting no, and Tim Bubon not in attendance.
The plan will require several adjustments, including having virtual-only students learning concurrently with those who are in person and breakout rooms. It will eliminate the hybrid model in place now.
District administrators have been evaluating the combination of increased staff and community vaccinations, lower case counts in Dane County, and the “negative impact of the pandemic on our students and families,” Onsager wrote in a March 10 letter to families.
“It is essential and now possible under county guidelines to bring more students back to school in person in the Stoughton Area School District,” he wrote. “Our students are struggling academically and social-emotionally.”
Kegonsa Elementary School principal Erin Conrad told the board that teachers said it would be much easier for everyone to come full time, both for consistency’s sake and because many students, parents and educators want to get back to school.
“Otherwise, it’s tricky with attendance, and really just an eagerness from us and from our educators to have our kids come each and every day,” she said. “That’s what we’ve seen from our K-2 families, they are really grateful to have that five days on consistency.
Sandhill Elementary School principal Bob Johnson said his conversations with teachers have been “overwhelmingly positive” about returning.
“Some of the conversations at some of the past meetings have not gone as smoothly as these,” he said. “I think now that our teachers have seen the students on an every other day basis, and especially at third through fifth grade, they see the need and they really want them here every single day. It is tougher for them to have kids one day and then have them virtual the next.”
The proposal would end the current A and B days, though all school start/end times would remain the same: Grades K-5: 7:45 a.m. to 1:45 p.m.; River Bluff: 9 a.m. to 3:05 p.m.; Stoughton High School: 9 a.m. to 3:15 p.m.
“Virtual Vikings” in grades 3-12 will learn concurrently with in-person students through Zoom, with new instruction days each week. They won’t be online for seven hours a day, though, and they will have regular breaks throughout the day, including every passing period, lunch and recess.
Also, not every class is a full period of instruction, according to the district plan, as students will sometimes work in large group instruction in the beginning of the period, and then on their own during the second half.
More than 80% of families of elementary school students plan to return to in-person schooling five days a week, according to a district survey.
Director of curriculum Kate Ahlgren told the board maintaining the hybrid model at the same time as in-person learning would create logistical issues, such as transportation, and could be a negative for some students.
“We do feel fluctuating between one model and another for any given student might be problematic for academic reasons and social emotional challenges,” she said.
Most board members had few questions about the plan, though some, like Tellander, expressed concerns that some teachers might not feel comfortable about coming back to school five days a week while the pandemic is still going. Tellander said she’s leaning toward giving teachers more time to communicate their feelings to the board.
“This is a big change, and I appreciate the fact that the principals feel they’ve really got a handle on how teachers feel, but as a former teacher, I also know how it feels to be nervous to speak up especially about big decisions,” she said.
Tellander motioned to postpone the conversation until the next board meeting to allow more time for teacher feedback, as well as “another built in week after spring break to kind of have a built in quarantine period for families who may be planning to travel.”
Joe Freye and Yolibeth Rangel-Fitzgibbon voted with her, but the motion was defeated 5-3.
Rangel-Fitzgibbon said she would rather wait until all teachers getting the COVID-19 vaccine are inoculated and cleared before returning to five-day in-person learning.
“We are so close to having all the teachers vaccinated, I don’t think it would make a huge difference to wait two more weeks,” she said. “People would be less anxious about it. The confidence of the teachers and of the community members will be higher.”