JEFFERSON — Area school administrators knew this was going to be a tough year heading into the fall semester. The spring pivot to virtual schooling dictated by the state at the start of the pandemic had proven to be less-than-ideal, and yet the pandemic which had precipitated initial school closures was still raging.
Going into the 2020-2021 school year, school planners thoroughly expected to be switching back and forth between in-person and virtual instruction over the course of the next few months, and that has indeed proved to be the case as districts have dealt with COVID-19 cases, coronavirus exposures, and shortages of regular staff and substitutes.
One thing that gave families more control this fall as opposed to the spring was the choice area districts offered to parents of either enrolling their children virtually or face-to-face.
Only the Watertown Unified School District, the largest district in the greater Jefferson County area, started out the year all-virtual. The majority of those students have since returned to face-to-face instruction as of mid-October.
Fort Atkinson, in contrast, started out the year face-to-face (although families could choose virtual instruction for their children) but was one of the first to go all-virtual, based in part on the county metrics and the degree of community spread the area was seeing.
The Cambridge School District recently decided to keep its middle and high schoolers virtual through mid-January, while elementary schoolers were to be phased back to in-person instruction in November after a few weeks at home.
Bernie Nikolay, district administrator for the Cambridge schools, said his district had to consider a number of different metrics when pondering building closures, as three of its buildings are located in Dane County and one in Jefferson County.
So far this year, the middle and high schoolers have not come into the buildings in person except in small groups, as with tech ed students using welding equipment or art students throwing pots on a potter’s wheel.
In the lower grades, “we are just coming off a two-week hiatus,” Nikolay said earlier this week.
Two weeks ago, he said, the district was down seven or eight teachers and officials met with staff to say if one or more teachers called in sick or had to go on quarantine, they’d have to switch to virtual school in the next week.
That day, Nikolay said, the district received five more calls from staffers unable to return to the buildings at that time. So the district went virtual.
Some levels were affected more than others.
Cambridge pre-K through second-graders started off the year with seven great weeks, Nikolay said, but a couple weeks into the school year, grades 3-5 started running extremely low on staff.
“We have had some positive cases in the district, and it has been a real challenge contact tracing all of the close contacts,” he said.
As of last week, the pre-K through second-grade students were back in the buildings. The third- through fifth-graders are slated to come back Nov. 16.
As of right now, middle and high school students are not scheduled to come into the buildings until the next semester started Jan. 25.
Dave Vitale, assistant superintendent and director of educational services for the Watertown Unified School District, said that the northern Jefferson county district is closely watching its attendance and case data every day, as well as remaining in regular communication with the Watertown Health Department.
“We recently decided to transition two of our classrooms to virtual in response to positive cases,” he said.
The district shifted its middle school to fully virtual from Nov. 2-13 and its high school to fully virtual from Nov. 4-13.
“We continue to watch every day, and with new cases – especially those with many close contacts – our status can change rapidly,” Vitale said. “Decisions are then made with the least disruptive changes in mind, such as by classroom or by school before making a decision to close the entire WUSD.”
He clarified that there is no “magic number” that would dictate a shift to all-virtual for the Watertown schools.
“Last week we had three positive cases that had no school exposures, and we have had single cases that have had multiple exposures due to riding the bus or the nature of the classroom,” Vitale said.
“For those reasons, we really have to consider each case individually along with the impact of each case on schooling,” he said. “Our principals are completely dedicated to taking everything they can off our teachers’ workload so that they can focus on new and demanding challenges with teaching and learning.
Watertown, unlike some of the smaller districts in the area, has the advantage of offering an “eCampus” 4K-12 virtual school that serves local families and others throughout the state who want the stability of knowing that they will be in one modality regardless of shifts in virus number and other factors.
“That has been a very popular option for families,” Vitale said.
Marissa Weidenfeller, communications and community engagement specialist for the Fort Atkinson schools, said that on Sept. 16, the district learned of positive COVID-19 cases at Rockwell Elementary School and Fort Atkinson Middle School.
The impacted individuals and those they were determined to have had close contact were shifted to virtual instruction for the quarantine period.
“To show the impact that one positive case can have, one of those positives resulted in requiring four full classes and six staff members to shift to virtual-only instruction due to close contact,” Weidenfeller said.
On Sept. 21, the Fort Atkinson schools received updated numbers from the Jefferson County Health Department indicating a concerning level of community spread that topped the metrics the county epidemiologist had set as a guideline for closing schools.
In accordance with the Jefferson County metrics, which the school board had adopted at a prior meeting, the Fort Atkinson district then moved out of its initial face-to-face instruction with a virtual option and shifted to virtual learning for all students districtwide.
The county’s guidance was one factor in this decision, Weidenfeller said. However, in addition, she said, there were many exacerbating factors, such as the struggle to fully staff the buildings when so many were on quarantine or had symptoms.
“We continue to have a limited amount of substitute teachers available, which adds to the strain on classroom learning and management,” Weidenfeller said.
Fort Atkinson has been the lone area school district to stick closely by the original metrics recommended by the county as to when to close school buildings.
Had the district as a whole remained open, Weidenfeller said, there would have been a number of times Fort Atkinson schools would have had to close due to three positive cases being reported in a single school within a week.
The high school would have had to close the week of Oct. 23, she said, and as of Oct. 26, three of the schools would have had to close due to the number of positive COVID-19 cases and the high numbers of staff absences due to required isolation and quarantine.
Also differing from some other districts, the Fort Atkinson schools have chosen to offer flexibility to instructional staff by allowing them to work remotely during this time of virtual learning, rather than requiring them to come into the school buildings.
“Because of this, many staff who are under quarantine, feeling under the weather or caring for ill family members are still able to perform their job duties,” Weidenfeller said.
She said a recent internal study performed by the district showed that 76 percent of those staff members who were in quarantine or symptomatic could still carry out their responsibilities, whereas if schools were in person, those staff members would have to be at home.
Fort Atkinson school officials feel their current approach is a prudent one, considering that the level of community spread of COVID-19 is so high that there is a backlog in contact tracing in the county, and the schools are essentially relying on self-reporting by affected individuals at this point.
As of earlier this week, the Fort Atkinson schools sent out a memo to district families stating that all-virtual instruction would continue until at least Nov. 30.
“If there is a dramatic shift toward data declining during this time, the board will respond accordingly at that time,” the memo said.
Jefferson school Superintendent Mark Rollefson said that a spate of COVID-19 cases in September that resulted in well over 100 exposures, led his district to switch to all-virtual instruction for Jefferson High School from Sept. 23 to Oct. 6.
Jefferson High School students returned to face-to-face classes Oct 7 but spent only two days in the classroom before the whole district switched to virtual instruction for a three-week period.
This all-district switch came about largely because of staffing considerations, Rollefson said. With so many regular staffers out sick or on quarantine, the district did not have enough people to call on to oversee all of the classrooms or complete the COVID-19 cleaning protocols.
On Monday (Nov. 2), Jefferson district students who had chosen to attend school in person returned to the classrooms, while others who had chosen virtual instruction remained at home.
The Jefferson district required families to commit to a particular type of instruction for a period of nine weeks, to allow the schools to better plan for classroom size and social distancing requirements.
A second nine-week enrollment choice period starts Nov. 9. School counselors report that a number of students have switched from virtual to face-to-face instruction for this second nine-week period, while a similar number have switched from face-to-face to virtual.
Waterloo school Superintendent Brian Henning said his district took a different approach, allowing more frequent switching from face-to-face to virtual and vice versa.
At first, Waterloo allowed students to switch back and forth as needed. Now, as the initial approach presented somewhat of a scheduling challenge, families are required to give 48 hours’ notice before switching a child from one form of instruction to another.
Meanwhile, Waterloo High School went to an open-campus format, allowing students to come and go as needed, only attending the classes they needed to.
“We knew it was a big risk, but the students have been super responsible,” Henning said. “We have really been able to limit our exposures by having less people in the building.”
Unlike many other area districts, which have gone all-virtual for stretches at some point during this school year, Waterloo was able to keep the building closures minimal.
“We’ve been able to keep our high school open the entire time,” Henning said last week.
However, since then the district has had to transition Waterloo High School to remote learning for two weeks, effective Nov. 6-16.
“We did have to close our K-4 building for one week, a Monday through a Friday, and at the intermediate level, our 5-8 building was closed one Friday and the following week, Monday through Friday, due to COVID exposures,” Henning said last week.
Unlike many larger districts, so far, the Palmyra-Eagle School District has managed to avoid any all-school or all-district closures, with fairly small COVID-19 quarantine numbers at any given time.
“We have been relatively lucky so far,” said Kari Timm, Palmyra- Eagle High School principal. “We’ve been able to remain open for face-to-face learning throughout the fall. At no point have we had to close our district or a building and shift to virtual.”
The district has seen less than 10 positive cases so far this fall linked to school exposures, although it has taken steps to quarantine a couple of individual classrooms and a handful of students.
“Right now, we have one active case,” she said.
The principal said the Palmyra-Eagle district has a dashboard up on its website relating current active cases, although those numbers do not include a small number of students who have been quarantined due to outside exposures that never had any impact on the schools.
Timm said she realizes the situation could change, especially given the skyrocketing numbers across the state right now.
“Through all of this, we’ve always known that it’s dependent on the adults being available to run the schools,” she said. “You can only have so many teachers out before you have to close the buildings.”
Johnson Creek, another small school district, has been fortunate to keep face-to-face classes open at every level except the high school, which was virtual for two stretches.
Michael Garvey, superintendent of the Johnson Creek schools, said his district took a slightly different approach than that of surrounding district in terms of offering families a choice between in-person or virtual instruction.
“Johnson Creek only offered virtual to families who have medically fragile situations,” the superintendent said, citing examples of members of a household with autoimmune conditions, going through chemotherapy or other immunosuppressive treatments, or those with other known health risks.
“Our administrative team realized very early that to attempt to offer both virtual and face-to-face, to all families, at the quality we expect, would not be sustainable long term,” Garvey said. “We feared that both methods would suffer. We committed to educating our students to the same standards that we have always provided. Our staff spent early August preparing to switch between in person and face-to-face without missing a beat.
Garvey said that Johnson Creek kindergartners through eighth-graders started school face to face Sept. 8 and they remain face-to-face now.
When a student tests positive, they’re isolated, he said, and if they’re a close contact of someone who tested positive, they’re ordered to quarantine.
At that point, those students are taken out of the general school population to join those attending virtually, coordinated by the district’s instructional interventionist/specialist.
Johnson Creek high schoolers started the year in the virtual format Sept. 1 and switched to face-to-face Sept. 21.
As of Oct. 21, the high school recorded one positive test at the high school, which resulted in the quarantine of four teachers and more than 40 students, and at that point, the district went all-virtual at the high school level “because operationally we were not equipped to teach both live and virtual at the same time” Garvey said.
Johnson Creek high schoolers returned to face-to-face instruction Nov. 4.
Garvey noted that high school staffers overall taught from the school building, and students with special education needs and students in lab classes attended sessions/classes/meetings in the building. Staff members on quarantine or on another type of leave were allowed to teach from home. All others reported to school.
Garvey said that his district has seen some spread in local students’ households, but very few COVID-19 cases (2) which appear to have spread in the school environment.
“Our volleyball team reached the regional finals with no positive COVID-19 cases,” he said. “Our football team had too many close contacts Oct. 21, and with the 14 day quarantine plus the required re-acclamation requirements, the football season ended early.”
He noted that staffing has been a challenge for Johnson Creek, as with other local districts, since there are few substitutes available.
In Johnson Creek, he said, school administrators have assisted with classroom teaching and other tasks which require direct student contact.
“My observation is that our students and staff have handled the mitigation strategies well. We have not seen the spread caused by contact in school. We see spread more as community or household spread. He said open communication between families and the school district has been essential during this time.
Tonya Olson, district administrator for the Lake Mills schools, said on Monday that her district was in its final day of a 14-day shift to virtual instruction.
“This was due to a lack of available substitutes to fill vacancies that we had across the board,” she said, noting that this list included teachers, paraprofessionals, and custodians.
“The absences were due to quarantines related to being a close contact, not necessarily the number of positive cases of COVID in the district,” she said. “We also have several staff that are out on maternity/paternity leaves, which means our regular substitutes are already teaching for us and are not available for the day-to-day absences.”
In September, Lake Mills High School shifted to virtual instruction for three days due to three positive cases there. Other than that, the Lake Mills district has quarantined a couple of middle school classes and one at the elementary level, Olson said.
“Overall, we have not seen a lot of positive COVID cases among staff or students,” Olson said. “Our parents have done a phenomenal job of keeping their kids home when they are sick or letting us know if they are a close contact when there is a positive case within the family.”
(Note: the Daily Union also reached out to the Whitewater public schools for information, but did not hear back by presstime.)
No statewide statistics are available through the Department of Public Instruction, the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, of the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators, but based on news reports from across the state, a large number of districts are finding themselves bouncing back and forth between virtual and in-person classes.
Almost all of the Dane County schools started their school year virtually.
The Oregon School District started its school year “mostly virtual.”
Deerfield just committed to stay virtual through the second quarter of the year.
The Dodgeland School District switched its elementary schools to an all-virtual format in mid-October in response to COVID-19 cases among school staff.Wisconsin Dells moved to all-virtual in mid-October following more than 40 cases of close exposures, and Baraboo High School just followed suit, announcing last week that it would be going virtual for the next three weeks due to staffing issues.
While there are no overall statistics, it’s clear that districts across the state and nation are boomeranging back and forth between virtual and in-person classes as districts try to balance students’ educational needs and learning styles with families’ and staff members’ health during this continuing pandemic.