VASD K-2s return to in-person classes

Glacier Edge Elementary School students learn in the classroom on the first day of school, Tuesday, Sept. 8. Students in grades K-2 were allowed to opt in to half-day, in-person learning as a part of the phased return for Verona Area School District students. Students in grades 3-12, with an exception for those with Individual Education Plans or 504 plans, started the year virtually.

Starting in late January, the Verona Area School District is hoping to bring more elementary school students in for in-person classes, and for longer days than what it’s offering now.

Under the district’s new plan based on Public Health Madison and Dane County recommendations, grades Pre-K-5 would come back to the school buildings for a full school day, two days a week, with two other days spent being virtual and Monday being a teacher prep day, starting second semester on Jan. 26.

“There was a heavy emphasis at (the latest PHMDC and superintendents) meeting on Friday about the need to just be public about getting kids back in school as being our collective No. 1 priority,” district superintendent Dean Gorrell told the school board at its Monday, Dec. 7, meeting.

With students split into cohorts to meet social distancing requirements from the county, teachers would teach their in-person and virtual classrooms at the same time from 7:35 a.m. to 2:40 p.m. four days a week, and use Monday as a preparation day.

Families who wish to keep their students fully virtual will still have that option, Gorrell told the school board.

The new plan for elementary school students was only discussed by board members at the meeting to provide administration feedback on how to proceed. The plan falls under the phased-return plan that school board members approved for the 2020-21 school year back in July.

Middle and high school students will remain fully virtual – for now. Gorrell said that both the district and PHMDC will continue to watch trends for both regional hospital capacities and how COVID-19 vaccinations progress in the community, and hinted more students could be added in the second semester.

He said that following discussions with PHMDC, he expected them to publish revised recommendations for schools that would encourage school districts to bring in grades 3-5 that would not be as strict as the current recommendations. The recommendations come with a caveat for school districts, stating they can open up to more students as long as certain health and disease mitigation factors could be met.

PHMDC could add more requirements or protocols for school districts as they bring more students back, but Gorrell said that county-area superintendents have not been fully informed as to what some of those might be. He added that in those meetings with PHMDC officials, superintendents urged them to consider the hurdles districts have to overcome with planning for more students.

“Not only do we need time to for operationalizing having more students in place, but our parents do too,” he said. “This is not something we can flip on a dime, and we can’t make an announcement on a Monday and expect that by the next Monday, that everyone’s got all their ducks in a row.”

PHMDC plans to release the new guidance by the end of the month, but Gorrell said he wasn’t sure if the district would have those in hand by the board’s next meeting on Dec. 21. Gorrell cautioned that plans could change due to how well the county’s population is managing COVID-19, but the district at least needs to start making plans to make sure it can operationally support having PreK-5 back in schools.

Not only do more students require more transportation and mitigation factors such as cleaning processes and contact tracing, but it also requires the administration to look at schedule adjustments and staffing needs, all prior to Jan. 26.

All board members were seemingly glad to hear the district was planning to bring more students back, but some offered questions or concerns with the operational process it was going to take to make it a reality.

Kalyanna Williams and Noah Roberts asked how administrators planned on making sure teachers had support for technological issues and weren’t being burned out by the new scheduling system. They said they didn’t want to see staff working huge amounts of overtime just to bring this new plan to life, as they’re already asked to juggle a lot.

“This is something I’ve been concerned about for years, that each year we ask more and more of our staff and not only are they educators, but they are also asked to be mental health professionals, and asked to be first responders, and asked to be technological experts,” Roberts said. “It seems like we got to a point pre-pandemic where we couldn’t ask staff to be any more, yet we have continued to ask more of them and they continue to deliver miraculously.”

Both director of elementary education Angela Lewis-Hawkins and assistant superintendent for academic services Laurie Burgos responded to their concerns. Lewis-Hawkins said each school will have district technology staff on site to fix technology problems and develop troubleshooting protocols for teachers and students.

“We will teach our students, just like a regular classroom, there may be glitches with technology – maybe not to the same large-scale in this case,” Lewis-Hawkins said. “But when we’re in the brick-and-mortar, things happen.”

Burgos added there are other teachers across the country teaching in-person and virtual at the same time, and there’s a lot the district can learn from those experiences.

“I would love to have our teachers listen to and hear from other teachers who have been doing this, because they’re the really the best ones to explain some of the challenges, how they worked through them, building that network of support so that not everybody is replicating the same work,” she said.

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