VASD K-2s return to in-person classes

Students at Stoner Prairie Elementary School are spaced out while learning 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.

Verona Area School District administrators are planning to bring plans for reopening and creating supplemental in-person options for students in early October.

And some board members want the district to implement some of those plans as soon as possible, even before getting feedback from the board.

At the board’s Monday, Sept. 17, meeting, district administration and board members discussed the state’s Supreme Court’s enjoinment of part of the county’s Emergency Order No. 9, and what it means for students in the district.

On Thursday, Sept. 10, the state Supreme Court ruled that the county did not have the authority to prohibit in-person education for grades 3-12. The 4-3 decision is not a final ruling on the case, as justices have agreed to hear oral arguments from the plaintiffs, who filed suit against Public Health Madison and Dane County director Janel Heinrich. The opinion, however, released on Sept. 10, projected the plaintiffs had a good chance of succeeding based on the merits of their argument.

On Friday, Sept. 11, the county told school districts that while it could no longer require the order to be followed, it is recommended that students in grades 3-12 continue to do virtual learning until the county’s number of new daily average cases stays at or below 39 new cases a day for grades 3-5, and below 19 for grades 6-12.

Those metrics, which have since been invalidated as a requirement, are based on studies of health data from the states of Wisconsin and Minnesota, as well as the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Harvard University.

Other portions of county restrictions stand, such as required social distancing and districts making a good-faith effort to do so, and mask-wearing. Attorney for the district Lori Lubinsky characterized the situation as being back to where the board was when it approved the half-day, in-person plan for K-2 students.

What the enjoinment will now allow is “plus” options for all students in the district, which had been discussed at previous meetings as a serious option for keeping students connected with the district.

In August, superintendent Dean Gorrell had told the board on Aug. 10 the “plus” options for students were on the “back-back burner.” As the start of the school year neared, staff were re-creating the district’s virtual education so students can make academic gains this fall. In the spring, Gorrell said, the district was merely staying engaged, as the district had requested, when schools closed suddenly, Gorrell added.

Board members Kristina Navarr0-Haffner and Carolyn Jahnke had not been pleased with that answer in August, and at the Sept. 17 meeting, they again were emphasizing the importance of creating the “plus” options for students.

Jahnke, who voted for the K-2 in-person option in July, said she wasn’t trying to insult the district’s staff, but she said better options need to be found quickly so students can stay engaged with school. Jahnke said her own children were begging to go to daycare for the interaction with other kids and that she couldn’t imagine herself or other families doing this for the entire year.

“I’m just worried how many more students are going to be left behind,” she said.

Board president Noah Roberts responded by calling Jahnke’s claim it would last the entire school year a “straw man” argument, aimed at having the board make decisions that aren’t in the interest of health and safety.

“Just because another part of the state is doing it a different way, that’s not an argument we can accept, because this virus has been politicized,” he said.

Navarro-Haffner, who, like Roberts, had voted against the K-2 in-person option, asked whether the district could start to implement parts of the “plus” options prior to bringing it back to the board in early October. She didn’t want to have the district wait those four weeks to engage students in-person, nor did she want to see all parts be completed before “plus” opportunities could be held.

Board member Meredith Stier Christensen agreed, saying it is not the board’s job to tell the district how to bring forth “plus” opportunities because the board does not have the sight-lines into the logistics of bringing back students that staff does.

“We’ve done the board part … the administrating part is now in your hands,” she said.

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