Schools figuring out best way to reopen

DPI guidelines provide some aid, but districts turn to community for help
Lee Pulaski
City Editor

Schools in the area are preparing for a new year, but it’s not likely to be the same as in years past.

After almost four months without students attending daily classes in the buildings, school districts are trying to determine how to reopen the halls of learning while minimizing the risk of spreading coronavirus. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction released guidelines to schools last week outlining the various steps needed to make sure education continues.

There are three recommended learning environments outlined by DPI — in-person learning, virtual learning, and physically distanced learning. The physically distanced learning would combine in-person and virtual learning by dividing students into shifts to reduce numbers in the classrooms at one time.

The guidelines are expected to help the schools determine what is the best method to bring school back into session, but for Wendell Waukau, superintendent for the Menominee Indian School District, he’s going to let the community help determine which route should be taken and not let DPI make the decision for him.

“That’s just what they are. They’re guidelines,” Waukau said. “We’re working with our tribal leaders and our (COVID-19) incident command center. We know that any decisions we make have to be in consultation with them; these are public health experts.”

Menominee Indian will have several contingency plans in place in case circumstances change, like the state closing schools again, or if an outbreak occurs at a school or affects a segment of a school. Waukau said he and other officials are reaching out to parents via a questionnaire to find out any concerns so they can determine solutions.

“We’ve got to have a plan, and we’ll make it work,” Waukau said.

At the Gresham School District, a committee of about 15 people is meeting with its superintendent, Newell Haffner, to determine which option fits best when the new school year begins in two months. Haffner said he hopes to have a plan to present to his school board in August, but he’s not putting too much stock in the DPI guidelines.

“There’s just so many things up in the air,” Haffner said. “You have to develop four or five plans, to be honest, because you don’t know what happens. You don’t know if a staff member’s going to get sick. If a kid gets diagnosed in this room, what are we going to do, and how are we going to get them all checked? There are so many open variables, it’s ridiculous.”

One thing Haffner hopes to focus on is internet accessibility, which has been an issue in rural areas. He said he has spoken with representatives from internet companies in the area and hopes to find a solution where any family that opts to stick with virtual learning will be able to access lessons and materials online.

“If we can’t get a hotspot working at their house, then we’d have to make sure they’re one of the few kids we have in the building,” Haffner said.

Bonduel School District is also making plans for the new school year, but the mandate is to make in-person learning a top priority, according to Superintendent Joe Dawidziak. That is based on the overwhelming support from a parent survey sent out in June.

“We are going to develop a committee that’s comprised of parents from both our district and St. Paul (Lutheran School) and some other stakeholders,” Dawidziak said, noting the first meeting would be Tuesday and that a plan should be ready for a school board vote later this month or in early August. “The thread through all of this is that there would be more harm not having school (in person) than having school.”

Dawidziak noted that the final plan Bonduel develops would need a mental health component. It would also need to address any issues that he said have become “political,” like whether the district would require masks or just recommend them.

The one constant, in Dawidziak’s view, is that the district has to be prepared for circumstances to change.

“It seems like the one thing that’s not going to change is that the answer to this question is going to change,” he said.

Shawano School District is working on plans to utilize all three of the recommended learning environments. Superintendent Randi Anderson, in an email to the Leader, wrote that she would use guidance from the Shawano-Menominee Counties Health Department and the state Department of Health Services to develop the hybrid and in-person teaching plans.

“I anticipate that sometime during next year we will be in all three of the models,” Anderson wrote, noting she planned to provide details to staff and the community by mid-July.

Anderson wrote that the district plans to provide iPads to Hillcrest Primary School students and Chromebooks to students at Olga Brener Intermediate School, setting them up to go home with students to be used.

Wittenberg-Birnamwood School District announced on its website that it intends to fully reopen for classroom instruction. Any final decisions are expected to be determined by the school board no later than August. The district said it would be posting weekly updates on its plans to reopen the schools.