Shawano School Board approves reopening plan

Committee formed to look at whether it’s safe to open five days a week
Lee Pulaski
City Editor

The Shawano School Board approved the district’s reopening plan Monday, with the current first week of school looking to be a hybrid model unless the county’s health risk drops or a newly forming committee determines otherwise, whichever comes first.

Under the hybrid model, students at Hillcrest Primary School and Olga Brener Intermediate School would be in school five days a week, but Shawano Community Middle School and Shawano Community High School students will attend two days a week while spending the other three days learning online.

Some parents commenting on the issue at the board meeting want to see all the schools providing in-person education five days a week. Parent Brent Polzin submitted a letter supporting the idea and urging the district to make it a reality on day one. He also wrote that he had a petition with more than 500 signatures in support of in-person education.

Polzin noted that there have been zero deaths in Shawano County attributed to the coronavirus, as well as daycare centers and summer baseball leagues not showing a surge in cases. He claimed many of the positive cases Shawano County has reported have not come from the Shawano area but are from “nursing homes in the western part of the county.”

“If we do not open the district now, then when?” Polzin wrote.

Rosie Thiel, another parent, agreed with the idea of getting all the students back into the classroom. Commenting to the board via Zoom, Thiel said the virtual learning implemented by the school district in March was a struggle for her two children, one who is going into seventh grade and another who will be a junior in high school.

“Let us get these kids back into school,” Thiel said.

Not everybody felt that way, however. Joe Guenther, a local physician and parent of three children, urged the board to move cautiously, saying that not doing so will make the community’s health situation worse.

“We’re going to see more cases,” Guenther said. “People will start dying.”

Katrina Bubolz, an interventionist at Hillcrest Primary School, urged that masks be a requirement in school for students and staff.

“We are already bring students and staff into an environment of risk, so a mask should be required of staff,” Bubolz wrote in a letter to the board. “I realize this is a novel virus and we’re not sure how to protect ourselves and families, but as the staff member, I feel doing all we can to protect each other is to wear a mask.”

Administrators had already updated the plan presented last week to require masks after Gov. Tony Evers issued an executive order later in the week requiring masks statewide.

A sticking point for some school board members is whether to use county health data to determine when schools open or close. To that end, the board approved forming a committee to look at developing a local rubric to make decisions on whether the schools change from one situation to another.

Board member Chris Gull said he did not trust the county numbers, saying they relied too much on “fuzzy math.” Gull pointed out that the health risk assessment is based on the number of cases per 100,000 people, but the county’s population is just shy of 41,000.

“If there are five new cases in Wittenberg, 28 miles away, we get bumped up” in the health risk assessment, Gull said.

Superintendent Randi Anderson said she could make more sense of the county numbers. She noted that, based on the county data, the school district could have done face-to-face learning in May, but Evers’ order to close schools in March would have superseded that.

From July 12-25, the county had 35 new cases.

“We’re heading in the wrong direction,” Anderson said.

Board member Bruce Milavitz said that he has heard from multiple parents that they feel “powerless” basing the school’s openness on the county’s coronavirus caseload.

“We’re doing far more harm because of not being in school five days a week,” Milavitz said.

Board member Michael Sleeper said he feels it’s better to use caution to avoid total closure like what schools experienced in the spring.

“I would prefer to be a little more cautious — start out blended and as soon as possible get to face-to-face five (days), rather than jump in the deep end and then risk being virtual,” Sleeper said.

Families have the option of enrolling in all-virtual learning for the first semester, and Anderson reported 13% of local families have already done so.

SCHS principal Scott Zwirschitz said that grades will return for the new school year after the district went to a pass-fail system during the previous closure. He said the high school and middle school are looking at adjusting the class loads so classes are divided in half by quarters; instead of eight classes every other day, students would have four classes daily in the first quarter and four in the second quarter.

Zwirschitz noted that the hybrid learning system will not have the same rigor as in-person learning.

“To say we’ll have absolutely the same rigor if we’re blended or virtual instead of face-to-face, I don’t feel confident enough to say we’ll do that,” Zwirschitz said.