Verona Area School District administrative building March 2020

The outside of the Verona Area School District administration building.

Verona Area School District administrators are recommending that the school year start with curriculum delivered virtually.

It’s not the option district staff wanted to recommend, superintendent Dean Gorrell told the Verona Area Board of Education at its Monday, July 20, meeting, but based on how COVID-19 cases are rising, it’s clear that neither the nation or the state has acted to ensure that students will be able to return to school safely.

“Until, or unless, we collectively get our act together, we’re going to be in this situation,” he said. “There isn’t a single administrator or staff member that says, ‘Gee, I think the best way to do this is virtually forever’ – it has to be in the context of where we’re at.”

The board is expected to take a vote on the plan at a special meeting Monday, July 27 – the board’s fourth Monday meeting in a row this month. In the last few weeks, other school districts in Dane County have decided to start their school years virtually, including Madison Metropolitan, Sun Prairie and Middleton-Cross Plains.

Milwaukee Public Schools, the state’s largest district, has also decided to start the year with virtual learning only.

Over the last month-and-a-half, Verona’s administration and board have explored three types of reopening plans for fall 2020. The first was a blended model that would have had students to school twice a week, with virtual learning the other days. Then, responding to a survey of parents, the board discussed a complicated but seemingly workable five-day in-person option.

But as cases in Dane County started to rise toward the end of June and continued into July, district administration switched gears and instead proposed what they are calling “Virtual+”.

The “Virtual+” option, which the board first discussed July 13, would have curriculum delivered virtually for all students, with the option for district staff to bring in students who need extra academic and social-emotional wellness support into the school buildings. At the July 20 meeting, district administrators still did not have answers to some detailed questions about how the “Virtual+” plan would work such as when students would start their days or what aspects of the “plus” portion would look like, but they planned to bring more information to the July 27 meeting.

Board member Debbie Biddle said virtual learning is a great option for those families who are able to make it work, but she added that the district needs to provide a different kind of option for those students who would struggle and those who are at risk of losing academic ground.

“If we can figure out a creative way to provide those to those families and to those students, then I could be OK with it, ” Biddle said. “But in the absence of that, I don’t know if I could wrap my mind around it.”

Focusing their efforts

District staff have been working for the entire summer on multiple plans for how schools could reopen.

But with the first day of school a little more than seven weeks away, administrators urged board members to pick a plan so they can determine where to focus their efforts.

One reason to select the virtual only plan, Gorrell said, would be solving personnel issues that might arise if teachers, support staff and substitutes get sick, need to quarantine or opt out of working altogether under the federal Families First Coronavirus Act, which allows for staff to get paid a partial salary to stay home if their children’s school is closed.

Some Verona teachers have children who attend districts that have already decided not to open for in-person learning in the fall, and Gorrell said that’s another reason – giving those teachers flexibility.

Gorrell added that it would prevent the district from having to send an entire classroom home or close a school because of a positive COVID-19 case.

Gorrell had raised that hypothetical scenario at the June 13 meeting and referenced it again at Monday’s meeting. He said it’s not difficult to imagine a single case of COVID-19 and 14-day quarantine requirements requiring a whole classroom or an entire school to temporarily pivot to online learning.

“It isn’t a closed system,” he said. “It isn’t just about what we’re able to provide for students, it’s what we’re able to ensure for our staff members, that they have a safe place to work in, that they can do their jobs here.”

Because of all the scenarios where schools could be shut down over COVID-19, board members Amy Almond and Kristina Navarro-Haffner agreed that regardless of what option becomes the starting point for the school year, district staff will need to be proficient in virtual learning and be prepared to change course.

“Getting really good at it is what needs to happen,” Navarro-Haffner said. “We don’t have a choice, really, given the situation.”

Sticking points

As the board discussed the “Virtual+” plan and its implications, emotions ran high, and some were almost in tears over the decision they were going to be forced to make.

A large sticking point with many board members was making sure the district was not leaving any of its most vulnerable students behind with a “Virtual+” option. Board member Carolyn Jahnke stated that she wanted the district to establish metrics for re-evaluating when it would be safe to bring students back to school in-person.

“Everything we’ve seen through this process has shown that we cannot rely on Public Health,” she said. “They have been slow to act, it takes weeks for them to process data, which is fair for them but not fair for people who are trying to educate students.

“The number of students that will fall through the cracks for an entire year, plus what we had last year, is unacceptable,” Jahnke added.

Gorrell told board members that district administrators aren’t infectious disease experts and won’t be bringing forth their own metrics on when it’s safe to reopen schools, but he said they would be open to re-evaluating the situation regularly.

Board member Tom Duerst, who announced that he was planning to vote against the “Virtual+” option when it was brought to the board, expressed frustration over a lack of choices for parents and stated his desire for the district to be a leader in reopening the schools.

“I know we need a decision, I know we need a plan, but this is the wrong plan,” he said. “Somebody needs to lead this fight, lead in a tough situation … I just wish we had the courage to do it.”

Board member Meredith Stier-Christenson disputed Duerst’s assessment, saying she is heartbroken over the decision the board is being forced to make.

“This is not us not having courage, and I resent that, actually, from you,” she said to Duerst. “My son is going to be a senior. This is the hardest decision I’m making for him, and I’m doing it because I do think it’s the best thing for our district at this point, and the best thing out of awful things.”

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