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Verona Area School District administrative building March 2020.

Only Verona’s youngest students will be able to attend school in person at the start of the school year.

And that start will be a week later than originally planned.

The Verona Area Board of Education approved a plan for the start of the 2020-21 at its Monday, July 27, meeting that would have students entering kindergarten through second grade attend school four days a week, for half-days, unless families opt for their children to stay virtual. Grades 3-12 will start the year virtually.

The board also approved moving the first day of school back a week to Tuesday, Sept. 8, to give staff more time for professional development and prepare for virtual learning.

The changes to the school reopening are a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and that vote made Verona one of the few districts in the county so far to approve putting any age group of students in class regularly. Madison’s school board voted July 17 to go all-virtual to start the year, and Sun Prairie, Middleton-Cross Plains and Stoughton followed suit July 20.

Mount Horeb is the only district so far that asked families to choose between a blended and virtual model, and other districts such as Oregon, Wisconsin Heights and Belleville have not made a call yet on how they will reopen.

It remains to be seen how the district will handle the plan, as it had not been considered previously by the board or, apparently, discussed by staff.

Verona administrators had recommended the board adopt a virtual-only plan for fall, but board members Meredith Stier Christensen, Carolyn Jahnke and Tom Duerst asked for the district’s youngest students to be able to attend in-person to build their fundamental skills.

“I’m very, very concerned about our K-2’s … we have a set of grades that’s just not going to be able to get off of the ground with virtual learning as it is,” Stier Christensen said. “These are kids that don’t even have the fundamental skills to be remotely self-sufficient in virtual learning. These are our most vulnerable learners, and if we start with an achievement gap at this age, I don’t know how we ever expect them to catch up.”

The plan passed by a vote of 4-2, with board president Noah Roberts and member Kristina Navarro-Haffner both voting no. Both explained that staff had not been asked about having grades K-2 in-person before Stier-Christensen proposed her amendment.

“I simply cannot vote in favor of this measure without surveying our staff, and assessing our staffing capabilities,” Roberts said. “I absolutely agree with the merit that K-2 is critical … Do we owe it to our families to come up with the best option possible? Absolutely. I think we also owe it to our staff to take the time to gather their feedback and ensure that we can implement this in a successful way.”

Duerst, who had told the board the week prior that he was planning to vote against a virtual option, voted in favor of the plan, although he had advocated for students grades K-3 to go to school for full-days. He has been an outspoken advocate for sending students back to school in person and has expressed frustrations repeatedly that county requirements have “hamstrung” the board’s decision.

The requirements for reopening schools from Public Health Madison and Dane County, published July 15, essentially prohibit students in school for full days, superintendent Dean Gorrell told the board. Part of the requirements, which are enforceable by law, require districts to ensure social distancing of students by a reasonable effort, meaning that a district could not just fill a classroom up as normal and state that it tried to get students to social distance from one another.

Assistant superintendent of academic services Laurie Burgos assured board members virtual learning would not look like the emergency learning model the district was forced to pivot into in March after the state ordered all public and private schools to close because of the coronavirus.

District assistant superintendent of student services Emmett Durtschi told the board students with special needs who have IEP or 504 plans will not necessarily have to be virtual to start the year. The district plans to discuss with each student’s family what will work best for them, whether it’s in-person education or virtual learning.

Options considered

Since the start of June, the board has been considering three different types of reopening plans.

One would have students back in school two days a week, with a deep cleaning day in between.

Another model would have full in-person school with modifications made for social distancing and increased hygiene and sanitary practices.

The final one had been a virtual-only instruction model that was considered “Virtual+” that could include in-person counseling and academic support for students.

During the July 27 meeting, the board only approved the virtual option, with additional in-person supplemental options still to be undetermined. Those aspects of any “Virtual+” plan are dependent on availability of staffing, superintendent Dean Gorrell told the board, but any options proposed would be brought back to the board at a future meeting.

A new look

In the updated virtual learning environment, Burgos said, students will have specific times they will be required to be online in videoconferencing classrooms with teachers, attendance will be taken and grades and progress reports will be recorded.

But part of the updated virtual learning model will also try to give students some balance of how they’re spending their time, Burgos said.

“This is truly going to be teacher-facilitated learning,” she said. “In the fall, we are planning to have a daily learning schedule for students that would include multiple synchronous sections per day, along with asynchronous activities that they would do in between those online sessions with their teachers and other staff members, and other work they would do independently.”

Providing a choice

Part of the virtual learning plan will also give parents at all grade levels a chance to choose whether they want to have their students come back to the classroom when it’s deemed safe or would rather keep their students home for an entire semester regardless of how in-person learning progresses.

Knowing which option families want for their students will help the district determine how to allocate staffing for the start of the year, Gorrell said.

If students choose to stay virtual for an entire semester or longer, they will have to drop out of any speciality program they’re enrolled in, such as Two-Way Immersion or the charter schools. Their seats will be held for the start of the 2021-22 school year or whenever it is deemed safe to have students return to school.

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