By Lynn Binnie
Whitewater Banner staff
The Whitewater Unified School District School Board has had several long, weighty meetings in the past two weeks as they have wrestled with difficult decisions about how to safely open the school year in the midst of a pandemic. It’s evident that the administration and board members are not united in their understanding of the decision that they made at their July 27 meeting, and are likely to clarify and/or revise that decision in their meeting this Monday, August 10. Below we will attempt to summarize the developments beginning on July 27.
Monday, July 27 Regular School Board Meeting: The administration proposed to begin the school year with a “fall instructional model” that would be primarily “virtual” for the first four weeks. Under the plan, 1/4 of the elementary students would each attend in-person learning with 4-8 students on the days of Tuesday – Friday from 12:30 – 3:00 p.m. 4K students would be in school two mornings or afternoons per week. Middle School and High School students would only attend a single orientation session during the first week of September, and then be online for the rest of the month. Special arrangements would be made for ELL students, those who are at risk, and those who are unengaged by online learning. All students from 4K through high school will be provided a Chromebook. Families without Internet would be provided a hotspot. Meals will also be provided for those students needing them on days when they are not present in school. Each Friday the district would report on data such as positive COVID-19 cases in the counties. On September 28 the Board would make a decision about whether to proceed to a second step in the plan for the month of October.
The board listened to approximately fifteen citizen comments, with opinions on the proposed plan being very mixed. A number of parents spoke of their strong desire for their children to return to fulltime in-person instruction on September 1.
The board on a 5-2 vote accepted an amended motion which accepted the administration’s recommended model for two weeks instead of four weeks. It was indicated that by the end of that period the board would decide whether conditions were right to proceed towards full face-to-face instruction. Although it was stated that the board would need to meet frequently in the coming weeks, there was no decision on when a plan for the second portion of September would be approved.
Wed., July 29 Special School Board Meeting: This meeting was scheduled primarily to address items that had been on the agenda for July 27 but had been postponed. However, it had been indicated that the board would also revisit their decision on reopening. The item did not get added to the publicly noticed agenda, and consequently the board was unable to discuss the fall instructional model.
July 31 Memo to parents: Parents were notified by the District Administrator of the fall instructional model that would be in place for September 1-11.
Mon., August 3 Special School Board Meeting: This meeting’s agenda included an informational presentation regarding the fall instructional plan, but it was indicated that no board action would be taken. District Administrator Dr. Caroline Pate-Hefty stated that she recognized that everyone involved is feeling frustration, urgency, and respectful anger, but it was her belief that “we’re all in this together,” and “it’s not us vs. them.” She reported that a staff survey conducted after the July 27 board meeting found that of the 199 staff responding, 93% said that they would return to school for in-person instruction for the first two weeks based on the adopted plan. 89% said they would return if a “hybrid AB model” was selected thereafter, with 78% saying they would return if a fulltime in-person model was adopted. Thus far 200 online registrations had been received for the fall, with 72% of parents indicating that they planned for their children to participate in the model.
Dr. Pate-Hefty indicated that Jefferson County has hired an epidemiologist who has provided guidance for school reopening. Neither Rock or Walworth County has provided any such guidance. Jefferson County recommends that school not reopen on an in-person basis if the county COVID test positivity level for the past two weeks exceeds 8%. Some counties and/or school districts are using a 5% threshhold. Once the level drops below 8%, it is recommended not to return to school unless the level continues to decline and remains under 8% for 14 days. Walworth County’s positivity level was reported as 8.6% for the period of 7/12-25. Dr. Pate-Hefty indicated that if a teacher or student in a classroom receives a positive test result, that person will have to quarantine for a minimum of 14 days, and the class will be shut down for three days, regardless of the use of facial coverings. If there are three cases in a building, the entire building will have to go to virtual learning for three days, and contact tracing would take place. It is also possible that the county could order the entire district to close down in certain circumstances.
Well over an hour of citizen comments were heard, including from many teachers and other staff members. A number of teachers expressed a desire to return to fulltime instruction as soon as it is safe to do so, but most did not feel that that time has yet arrived. A number of the comments expressed the opinion that parents need to know the instructional plan for more than two weeks at a time, and must have advance notice when a change is being made. There were also comments to the effect that two weeks’ experience of an instructional model would not be sufficient time inform a new decision. It was after these comments were received that the board appeared to be uncertain as to exactly what had been decided on July 27. Member Thayer Coburn’s understanding was that the board planned to give a month’s notice for any change, and he thought that the board would meet in mid-August to decide on the plan for the second half of September. Although the agenda did not allow for any decisions to be made, there appeared to be support for revisiting the board’s direction at its special meeting on Monday August 10, at which time an epidemiologist update, consideration of the Jefferson Country matrix, and timeline clarification are on the agenda.
Thursday, August 6: The school district, the city, and the university took part in an online Town Hall. In her comments, Dr. Pate-Hefty stated that the district would be using a virtual hybrid model from September 1-30, and the board would be making a decision at its September 14 meeting regarding the plan beginning on October 1. A Banner staff member submitted a request for clarification on that statement, which was conveyed to Dr. Pate-Hefty but not addressed in the town hall. After the meeting the Banner received an email from her indicating, “There was confusion on the motion. We had to clarify last week and will also be clarifying at this week’s meeting. The intention was to pass the plan for one month, however, they will review that every two weeks. Sorry for the confusion.” However, on Friday, in response to a request for further comment, Dr. Pate-Hefty told the Banner that after listening to the video of the July 27 board meeting, it was confirmed that the board had only authorized the virtual hybrid plan for two weeks. She indicated that the board would be clarifying their plan at the August 10 meeting. Added at 8:45 a.m. on 8/9: Also on Friday, in an email to the Banner, Casey Judd, School Board President, stated, “Upon rewatching the July 27th meeting, the motion was to approve a two week plan with a review at that time….Clearly the Administration needs to have a plan beyond the first two weeks. The biggest issue here is that the board only approved a two week plan and we can make that clear on Monday when we approve the timeline. The board will review the two week plan that we approved, along with any other recommendations that administration wishes us to consider at the August 10th meeting.”
Monday, August 10: The board will hold a special online meeting at 6:00 p.m. As is indicated above, the agenda includes an epidemiologist update, consideration of the Jefferson County matrix, and timeline clarification.