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Verona Area School District administrative building March 2020.

With the start of the 2020-21 school year less than two months away, the Verona Area Board of Education will soon need to make a choice between options it would normally never pick.

That decision will need to come soon, superintendent Dean Gorrell urged board members at its meeting on Monday, July 13, and might need to come before the district receives county guidance on how to reopen schools safely.

“We’re getting pretty impatient about waiting because it’s the middle of July and school starts, in whatever fashion, pretty soon,” he said. “If we don’t have the guidance from Public Health Madison and Dane County by this time next Monday, we just make a decision. Because we just simply can’t wait anymore.”

No decisions were made Monday night on how the school year will proceed, though in the last month, board members have discussed what different models of education would look like for the fall. Those include a blended approach, a five-day in-person setup and a “Virtual+” option, where students would take classes from home but the district would still use its buildings to bring students in for additional help, counseling and activities based on the status of COVID-19 in Dane County.

All of those options come with downsides and risks.

Should students be in person for all five days, it would provide the benefit of being back in classrooms, but would risk students and staff getting infected with COVID-19, which could require the entire school or district to shut down. A blended model or Virtual+ options raises the issue of equitable access to education and how the district would ensure that its most vulnerable students and families who don’t have access to childcare or consistent internet service or are homeless could continue their education uninterrupted.

The district had considered a five-day approach the week before after results from an emailed survey indicated an overwhelming preference for in-person schooling. But multiple parents and teachers wrote in public comments urging a virtual format, at least to start the school year.

Verona Area High School teacher Jason Knoll asked board members what personal protective equipment and sanitation supplies would be available to them, who would be allowed in the building and what sick leave would look like for staff.

“Given that Wisconsin is reporting record-high new cases of COVID-19 and the board is conducting its own meeting virtually, how can VASD recommend a return to five days a week for all students?” he wrote.

Verona Area Education Association co-president and VAHS world language teacher Barb Winger-Rourke wrote that the health and safety of students and staff should come first in the decision-making process.

“We know the board has worked hard to plan in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic and we appreciate the cooperative nature of the process,” she wrote. “We are counting on you to make safe decisions.”

Board members expressed frustration with the lack of needed information provided from Public Health Madison and Dane County, which will dictate what restrictions the district needs to follow with students in classrooms, capacity on buses with no air circulation and at what point the district would need to shut down schools if infections were to occur.

Board member Tom Duerst said he wondered what the county regulations were protecting people from if hospital beds were not yet full, and he said he was more concerned about the impact on students from not being in school, especially those who are economically disadvantaged.

Duerst added that he’s been frustrated by changing information from health officials, claiming they have been wrong in the past about COVID-19 and that he doesn’t trust them.

“I don’t get it – we’ve got plenty of hospital space, we’ve got ventilators up the gazoo,” he said. “What are they protecting us from when we’ve got all this capacity sitting here waiting to be used?

“The damage to the child (from not being in school) could be much greater than a lot of the other stuff we’re worrying about,” Duerst added.

Board member Kristina Navarro-Haffner responded to Duerst by stating that the sheer amount of people who are in the buildings every day makes it a high-stakes decision.

“I think schools in particular, being indoor environments, are so critical – what policies, procedures, limitations, all those kinds of things that they ask us to follow,” she said. “If we get something wrong, with the number of people we have in a school district, we could quickly add to that trajectory in a way that maybe other institutions wouldn’t.”

Virtual+ option

Assistant superintendent of academic services Laurie Burgos assured the board that what virtual learning looked like in the spring is not what it would be in the fall.

That was a mode of emergency learning, she explained, with less than a week to transition from in-person to virtual education.

“We had to pivot immediately and try to do our best to get our students online,” she said. “It truly was responding immediately to the public health emergency.”

The Virtual+ option would be a more structured environment, including a daily schedule for when attendance would be taken, when students need to be online, expanded virtual classrooms with videoconferencing and graded work with report cards and progress reports.

With Dane County in a modified version of its Phase 2 of its Forward Dane reopening plan, school buildings are allowed to be open, and the district can be creative with how it uses its buildings to support students, Burgos said.

“We could think about what would wrap-around services look like in our schools, how could we transport our children from their communities to our schools to participate in different types of activities, to receive counseling services, to receive additional instruction if they were to need it, get together with their friends,” she said.

Keeping control

The board seemed to come to a consensus that whatever option it chose, it needed to allow the district to maintain as much control over health, safety and continuity of learning as possible.

Gorrell encouraged the board to “set its star” on the Virtual+ model, and said it’s the only model that allows the district to maintain full control over education and wouldn’t prompt the district to have to change course if students or staff get sick with COVID-19.

“It’s not hard to envision a closure, back in, a closure, back in,” he said. “That would be terribly disruptive to the continuity of learning.

“We all want these buildings filled with kids and staff,” Gorrell added. “But we’re not going to get that.”

Board president Noah Roberts said it’s not sustainable for staff to be preparing for every possible scenario, and he agreed with Gorrell’s insistence that the board make a decision soon so that staff can start preparing for a specific model.

“The one we have the most control over is the virtual environment,” he said. “Regardless, it’s really important to gather additional feedback from staff and families.”

Navarro-Haffner said the use of technology to teach students virtually is the ultimate way to ensure the district is doing its part to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

“We all as board members so want to see our educators and great staff interact directly with our students,” she said. “It pains me to think of a brand new high school not filled with that senior class who’s been looking forward to that … what we can really maximize is how we offer that virtual (learning), because we know it’s going to be used. We know that no matter what happens, there are going to be instances where people are going to have to go into that virtual world for their education.”

Email reporter Kimberly Wethal at kimberly.wethal@wcinet.com and follow her on Twitter @kimberly_wethal.