Oconto Falls schools grapple with return-to-class issues

Plan rotates in-person learning with virtual classes
Oconto Falls School Board members and district administrators meet July 20 via Zoom technology.
Warren Bluhm
News Editor

Elementary school students would attend class in person four days a week and secondary students would rotate between face-to-face and virtual learning under a back-to-school plan presented to the Oconto Falls School Board on July 20.

The board hoped to make a final decision at a special meeting Wednesday night. Watch for an update at newmedia-wi.com.

Introducing a lengthy presentation about the administration’s recommendations, Superintendent Dean Hess said the district has conflicting priorities that didn’t used to be in conflict — protecting children’s safety while providing in-person education.

“People expect us to provide them back to them at the end of the day in the same condition or better than when we picked them up on the bus that morning,” Hess said, referring to an 87-page document from the state about how schools can mitigate concerns over COVID-19. “How do we meet some of those mitigation measures while at the same time being able to provide education in that face-to-face format that I think most people would really like to be in, if at all possible?”

Hess said the virtual education format in which students spent the last three months of the 2019-20 school year had a number of drawbacks and obstacles that need to be overcome before students start the new school year in September.

Those conflicting priorities were in evidence during the first 75 minutes of the meeting, which consisted of public comments read by board clerk Pam Engels. As with all board meetings since March, the session was conducted via Zoom with Hess at the district office and board members signing in from their homes.

Nearly 250 members of the public were watching the proceedings via a YouTube link at any given time during the meeting, which lasted three hours and 45 minutes.

Engel read letters from several high school students who said their ability to learn suffered without face-to-face interaction with teachers and other students.

“I believe it is very hard to learn and succeed through virtual learning,” wrote Emmie Magnin, who will be a junior at Oconto Falls High School this fall. “Many teachers struggled with how to use our online technology, and it was hard for them to give their lessons a different way. My friends and I spent many hours completing our classes without getting full knowledge of what the lesson was.”

A number of parents expressed concern about the health and safety of students and staff, especially those who have compromised immune systems or are at higher risk from the coronavirus.

“I believe that teaching and learning will suffer if we prematurely return to face-to-face school,” wrote Ashley Maederer. “Listening to the medical community and scientists’ recommendations for safely reopening is key.”

Hess acknowledged the difficulty in providing a virtual option but said the community’s investment in technology in a 2016 referendum has served the students well.

“I recognize that there are absolutely challenges — recognized that in March,” Hess said. “But I will also say that had you not invested the way you did to get the equipment and to hire folks that provided the professional development to our staff, we would have been in a much worse situation, had this happened three or four years ago.”

Administrators are recommending that students from kindergarten through fifth grade attend school in person on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, with Wednesdays used as a virtual learning day so school buildings may undergo a deep cleaning.

Grades six through 12 would be split into two “cohorts,” attending in person either on Monday and Tuesday or Thursday and Friday while learning virtually on the other three school days each week.

Board member Clint Gardebrecht asked why the secondary school schedule couldn’t be managed like the elementary schools, with four days of face-to-face classes for everyone.

“It’s not that you couldn’t; it’s that the ability to mitigate risk isn’t as good,” Hess said. “Your elementary classes have fewer students in them … and the students are going to spend most of their day with the same students. So if they’re in a class of 18, they’re going to spend most of their day with those 18 students, except when they’re going to a special (class) or when they’re at lunch or recess. … At the high school, those kids are mixing all throughout the school.”

The preference is for traditional classroom learning as much as possible, if the risk can be mitigated to an acceptable level to create a safe and healthy environment, Hess said.

Administrators are also recommending that students and staff be required to wear masks in school, he said.

“We recognize the challenge; we just think it’s in the best interests of student safety and staff safety,” Hess said.

To reduce the number of students on school buses, the board is also being asked to consider eliminating transportation this year for students who live within 1-2 miles of school.

The Oconto Falls School Board is scheduled to meet around 6 p.m. Wednesday, July 29, following a closed session at 5:45 p.m., and may take action on the recommendations for the start of the school year. The meeting will be conducted online; the public can access a YouTube feed of the session by visiting ofpanthers.com, choosing “Board of Education” under the “District” dropdown menu and clicking the “AGENDA” button.