The Watertown Unified School District will proceed with caution and open schools this September — exclusively virtual — at least for the first part of the fall.

It took five hours, a 41-page proposed plan, and considerable input from the public, school staff and board of education, but Watertown school district leaders on Monday night devised a plan for opening. It’s school board members unanimously said the concept offers opportunities for education, while, first and foremost, keeping students and staff as safe as possible during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Watertown School District Superintendent Cassandra Schug spent a significant portion of the first part of the meeting, which ran from 6-11 p.m., presenting a plan for potentially reopening the school district this September. The plan was created by the district’s Pandemic Planning Team.

The plan’s “guiding principles” included safety, flexibility and instruction.

The goal of the meeting was for the board to vote on a resolution containing the plan that would permit the district to move forward with school openings on Sept. 1.

The original proposed resolution was tabled and replaced with a board-approved revised plan for a more cautious opening.

The first resolution, that was tabled, called for the board to approve the Reopening of Schools plan for the 2020-2021 school year with all recommended key safety protocols, so that the WUSD schools would be opened with a full-day, face-to-face instructional model at the elementary schools, and a blended instructional model at the secondary levels of the middle and high school if the community of Watertown continues to be in Phase 1 of Reopening on Aug. 14.

Under the original resolution, if the community of Watertown returned to Phase 2 on or before Aug. 14, the WUSD would open with the full day, face-to-face model across the WUSD.

After extensive comment from the public, staff, administration and board of education, it became clear most board members favored a more conservative approach to reopening the schools.

Schug and others said the district has learned quite a bit this summer about how the schools could operate in the fall, with all the challenges an opening will bring. She predicted that there would likely be “no perfect recommendation.”

“I’ve struggled with what recommendation to bring,” she said. “No matter what happens, there will be considerable challenges.”

Watertown Health Department Officer Carol Quest gave the original resolution and plan her support. Quest said, with her knowledge as of Monday, the phases of recovery that are in place, metrics and the ability to “pivot,” she could endorse the original plan.

Board member Fred Jandt was a frequent contributor to the meeting. Jandt seemed dead-set on having every possible question he could muster answered before casting his vote on the issue. Almost every other board member was also vocal, whether participating remotely, or in person.

Jandt said that he could not, in good conscience, send children and district staff into the schools in September and believe they were safe. He went on to support the eventual plan that called for initial, virtual student attendance in classes.

Francis Milburn of the board is recovering from COVID-19 and has a husband in the military. She said, although soldiers are sent into wars, all U.S. military meetings are now being conducted virtually. She said if the Watertown school district approved its initial plan to have students attend classes in the fall, its restrictions would be looser than those of the U.S. military.

“We have an enemy and it’s COVID-19 and we’re going to send our kids and staff into it? I cannot do that,” she said. “(If someone becomes sick) what are we going to say? ’Sorry?’”

Board member Steve Kauffeld said he believed that “fear-mongering” had been taking place. Kauffeld, however, later voted in support of the revised resolution to allow the district to begin the year virtually.

The next steps for the district will be to meet with staff members and parents of students in the district to convey information and receive input on the board’s recommendation.

Watertown school district educators who spoke at the meeting said they hoped the district would prioritize the safety of students and staff, and encouraged a thoughtful, phased-in approach. They said many questions still exist about COVID-19, its transmission and health ramifications. They said they want to be back in the buildings, educating children more than anyone, but more safety precautions need to be in place before children of any age should be put back together in the same rooms.

Vanessa Kreblin has taught summer school at the first grade level in Watertown this year and told the board of her experiences.

“Social distancing is tough,” she said. “It’s their age. Being realistic, the elementary kids won’t stay apart. Keeping kids six-feet apart won’t happen. Keeping kids apart is hard. Kids want to play together.”

Kreblin said she has worries about 100 children, or more, using the bathrooms, where germs abounded — before COVID-19.

She said children have been sent home from summer school with COVID-19 symptoms.

Lauren Kell is a first grade teacher at Schurz Elementary School and lives in Lake Mills.

“We’re coming to work from other communities that aren’t taking the same precautions (that Watertown is),” she said. “I could be someone who brings it to you.”

Kell also said if she has to come into the schools, she wants to wear a mask, but it is difficult to teach aspects of speech and language when young children cannot see how a teacher’s mouth is moving, or other facial expressions.

She said learning for young children is, “hands-on” and she added that she is concerned because she heard her own daughter, who is 10-years-old, ask her, “How am I going to concentrate at school when I’m so scared?”

A caller to the meeting said the seniors at the high school should be allowed to attend classes, because the senior “experience” is more than just going to classes.

Linnea Nagel, a mother of two elementary school children, is a medical professional. She told the board the original, proposed plan to have face-to-face classes for elementary school children was too dangerous. She said safety measures and protocols can’t be implemented in time.

She said accusations of “fear-mongering” were wrong.

“I say that as a person who works in the trenches with this virus,” she said.

Some speakers were against masks being required in the schools. Dr. Michael Sullivan, of Watertown, however, said masks would be “essential” inside district facilities.

“The wearing of masks is not even debated in the medical community,” he said, noting children often spread the disease, but do not become sick from it.

Lisa Clark teaches first grade at Webster Elementary School and urged the board not to send elementary school children to face-to-face classes.

A young woman, who will be a senior this coming year, said she doesn’t think she, or her peers, would have the self-discipline to spend an entire school year learning virtually.

Another segment of parents said they might lose their jobs if they have to stay home while their children learn remotely. The board later agreed the district should look at providing some aid, in terms of daycare.

In discussing the original resolution, Kauffeld said he felt society was being bombarded with “hype” over the coronavirus, while Jennifer Bakke of the board said it would be imperative the district proceed with “an abundance of caution.”

She said Sept. 1 is too early to fully open schools and the district should begin virtually.

“Pivot, blend, then perhaps, go face-to-face,” she said.

Paul Van Den Langenberg of the board said there is science and data that backs both going back, in-person, as well as virtually.

Board member Doug Will expressed his concern about just when the board might deem the environment safe enough for children to go back to school.

“This (virus) could be in our community for a long time. When are we ever going to go back … I understand the fear. It’s scary. We’re here to educate and we have to do that,” he said. “I’m in favor of getting this ball rolling as fast as we can.”

Jandt said the plan was not sufficient and could not be properly executed in 36 days. He said he wanted “full virtual” to start out the year.

“You can call it ‘fear-mongering,’ but if I vote for this (original resolution) and a teacher or a kid dies, it’s on me. I can’t do that,” he said.

Board president Tony Arnett said he had spent almost his entire Monday considering the original resolution. He said he didn’t think the original plan could work and said a mistake could “wipe out” a class.

“You can’t learn this way. With these standards put on us, we can’t win,” Arnett said. “The best plan in the world wouldn’t win.”

He said, as much as he wanted to see the schools educating face-to-face this September and as much as he has had concerns about the limitations of virtual learning, he could not see going back with students inside the schools, immediately. He said the only alternative, at least early in the year, would be virtual learning for all.

The board then created, and approved, the plan to begin the year with virtual learning. It will reassess it “early and often.”

The district will pursue its virtual model for learning for all students, allowing for possible fall sports. The board will revisit this plan at its August meeting and every month thereafter, until children are again attending classes. The district will do ongoing preparations for going full, “face-to-face” if the virus subsides.

Arnett thanked Schug for her effort on the original plan and board members agreed most elements of it will be of great use in the future.

Schug said she was grateful to have a decision from the board, because it allowed her and district staff to take the next steps necessary to get classes going in September.

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