Watertown school officials agreed at Monday’s board meeting to have students back in the district’s classrooms this fall.

“At this point in time we are driving toward a goal of having the students in the building,” said Tony Arnett, Watertown Unified School District board president. “That’s a model we are building around knowing that we will have to engage virtual (education) at some level, but our goal is the face-to-face learning.”

Arnett’s comments followed a presentation by Cassandra Schug, Watertown Unified School District superintendent, who said she and the rest of her staff are reviewing a Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s 87-page document, dubbed “Education Forward.” The guidelines call for face masks, a maximum of 10 students per class and keeping buildings open as few as two days a week.

New state guidelines for reopening schools this fall are merely suggestions and local officials will ultimately decide the parameters for bringing their students back, Gov. Tony Evers said Tuesday.

The governor closed schools in March as the coronavirus pandemic seized the state. Districts finished out the year through distance learning.

Evers, a former state schools superintendent, said Tuesday the guidelines — released Monday — are a list of options, not orders. Local school districts can make their own choices, the governor said.

Schug said before Monday’s meeting she met with other state school superintendents, DPI and state public health department representatives to help navigate the guidelines set forth by the DPI while prioritizing student and staff safety and providing a quality education at the same time.

“The DPI is looking at the same scenarios we’ve been reviewing such as an in-person scenario, a blended scenario with some in-person mixed virtual learning and a fully virtual option,” Schug said.

She said the district has created academic and pandemic planning teams with the first team looking at a single technology platform to support K-5 and 6-12 grades.

“Our hope is to bring students back face-to-face,” Schug said. “We need to be prepare our students, families and staff with the flexibility of moving to face-to-face and virtual learning scenarios with a relatively seamless transition.”

Dave Vitale, assistant superintendent and director of education services and innovative programs, said the school district like others in the state are entering into a whole new world.

“So the operating assumption and educational considerations for our academic planning team is to anticipate some level of disruption as we did this past March. This fall will be different than what we encountered in the spring in terms of a quick pivot and really just getting through those spring months,” Vitale said. “If we have to launch fully online or face-to-face with a blended option, it will be different than what we encountered in the spring, which was it happened with little or advanced warning, but we made due the best we could. It wasn’t ideal by any stretch. Even the fall won’t be ideal by any stretch because these are complicated matters we’re dealing with. We will build upon are current resources. It’s not just our staff that needs to prepare, but our families as well. As we know, it’s a different world now.”

Schug concurred.

“We may have a student, a classroom or a school that may need to shut down for a period of time because due of a COVID-19 case,” she said. “We need to make sure learning will continue when you have a very fluid environment in terms of who is there and when they are there. We are really going to work with our staff so that our curriculum is modified in a way that it can be delivered in person or virtually. We really have to implement flexibility as we move ahead.”

The pandemic planning team is focused more on the safety protocols and educating the staff, students and families as what’s happening.

“They will also look at the physical infrastructure as to proper distancing and disinfecting the schools. The pandemic planning team will also look at how we will we put in place health and behavioral norms such as hand washing and face coverings.”

She said the same team members will also examine how the district will transport students safely to and from their schools.

“We also need to look at our food service of where and how the students will eat breakfast and lunch,” Schug said. “We are very confident we will have a document to bring you at the July board meeting with all of the details with the health department’s stamp of approval on it.”

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