Oconto Falls school board approves 4-day week in person

Wednesdays will be for virtual learning, teacher prep, deep cleaning of buildings
The Oconto Falls School Board meets remotely July 29 for probably the last time. The next regular meeting Aug. 17 is scheduled in the high school auditorium.

Warren Bluhm | NEW Media
Warren Bluhm
News Editor

The Oconto Falls School Board has asked administrators to move forward with a four-day in-person class schedule for all students this academic year.

Board members also voted July 29 to require face masks for staff, students and visitors in school buildings and buses, with exceptions considered for medically certified conditions and certain other situations.

They postponed a decision until October on whether to suspend bus pickups for students who live one to two miles from their schools, after Superintendent Dean Hess said it will be hard to predict how many students actually use the buses until after the school year starts, with a number of parents planning to provide their own transportation.

“I’d feel more comfortable coming to the board (with a recommendation) in October,” Hess said. “I’d rather avoid that hardship on families at this time.”

Administrators had recommended that elementary school students meet face-to-face on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, with Wednesdays set aside for deep-cleaning buildings, virtual instruction and teacher training and preparation.

Middle and high school students would be split into two “cohorts,” with half meeting in person Monday and Tuesday, the other half Thursday and Friday, and the rest of the week in virtual learning.

A survey of parents found four out of five believed their children should be in class as much as possible.

“I have a concern with our not honoring 80-some percent of our parents who want to go face-to-face as much as possible,” board member Sharon Stodola-Eslien said.

Board member Ken Harter noted that a number of students don’t have very good access to the internet, which would be a must for virtual education to succeed.

Hess acknowledged the “anxiety” that administrators have in balancing the best interests of students and staff in terms of both education and safety, and he said as a science teacher he’s troubled by recent data about positive tests in Oconto County.

“When people share with me that it took three months to get 50 cases, three weeks to get 100, and now we’re at 149, that doesn’t lead me to believe scientifically that those numbers are going to go down anytime soon,” he said.

As of July 29, no one had died of COVID-19 in Oconto County, but just to the south 50 deaths had been recorded in Brown County, and the spike in confirmed cases was moving north, Hess said.

Stephanie Landreman, principal of Washington Middle School, said it’s a challenge to balance the often contradictory priorities that kids should be in school full-time but only with a litany of safety precautions.

“I’m responsible to keep the kids safe, and that’s really hard to do when I can’t cohort them,” Landreman said. “They should be in school, there’s no doubt about that, but then there’s so many guidelines to follow that it gets really hard.”

The board unanimously voted to go with the four-day week at all school levels.

Despite some community resistance, the board and staff also agreed that a mask requirement is an essential part of the safety effort.

“I would not support an option that does not require masking where it can be done,” board member Jan Stranz said. “Obviously there are students who need help with certain things like speech and hearing and maybe other medical conditions where a physician would say no, for this student it would be detrimental, but the same things happens when we vaccinate people — there are some people who for some reasons cannot be vaccinated, but that’s why the rest of us do have vaccinations, we protect ourselves and we protect those others who can’t participate in that same protection.”

Board member Clint Gardebrecht noted that Japan, a country with twice as many people as Minnesota and Wisconsin combined, has reported half as many COVID-19 cases as the two states. The difference, he said, is that the Japanese government imposed a mask requirement early in the pandemic.

The board also approved recommendations for restarting fall sports and slowly reopening the weight room at Oconto Falls High School.

The school is following the lead of the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA), which currently is postponing the start of cross-country, girls golf, tennis and swimming to Aug. 17 and football, volleyball and soccer to Sept. 7.

Athletic director Jerry Moynihan said additional precautions will be taken, including, for example, cross-country teams running in waves.

“The Oconto Falls team will run, and then five minutes later or 10 minutes later, the Luxemburg-Casco team runs, so the kids aren’t by each other,” he said. The 20-team invitationals of past seasons are also being canceled in favor of dual, triangular or quadrangular meets.

With collegiate conferences and other states dropping their fall sports schedules, Harter asked if the WIAA had simply postponed a decision to move fall sports to the spring or cancel them altogether.

“We’re not going to play much football in March when there’s snow on the ground,” Moynihan said, while acknowledging that the WIAA’s position could change.

Board members OK’d the revised schedule, as well as relaxation of the social distancing rules in the weight room to allow students to “spot” for one another. No more than 10 people are allowed in the weight room at one time, and Moynihan said they’ve been able to bring in as many as 40 students a day for weight training using the staggered schedule during July.

This was the last Oconto Falls School Board meeting planned using Zoom videoconferencing technology, which they have been using since March. The board’s regular Aug. 17 meeting, and the district’s annual meeting that night, have been scheduled for the Falls Area Performing Arts Center inside Oconto Falls High School.

The July 29 meeting video had about 480 views by the end of the 3½-hour meeting.