WUSD Board votes to pause in-person instruction from Nov. 30 thru Jan. 17 (ADDENDUM ADDED)

By Lynn Binnie
Whitewater Banner volunteer staff
November 23, 2020

At the regular, virtual board meeting on November 23, Whitewater Unified School District Administrator Dr. Caroline Pate-Hefty informed the members of the recommendations of the Walworth and Rock County Health Departments that in-person instruction be paused due to the rapid increase in COVID-19 infections in the area and the expectation of further increases related to the holidays. After hearing mixed comments from parents and teachers for nearly an hour, board members discussed various options but ultimately adopted the proposal that was offered by Dr. Pate-Hefty:
November 30 – No school; prep day for staff
December 1 – Virtual instruction begins
January 18 – Return to in-person instruction
Exceptions to the above: Early childhood and 4K will continue with five days per week in-person instruction, as will students who are recognized as having special needs due to learning style or lack of adequate Internet access.

The proposal was accepted on a 4-3 vote, with Thayer Coburn, Kelly Davis, and Jennifer Kienbaum opposed.

Addendum – Nov. 24

Last week both Walworth and Rock Counties had reverted to their Phase I COVID-19 guidance. In that phase, Walworth County Health & Human Service’s guidance, developed early in the pandemic, recommended that there be no in-person instruction for K-12 and higher education. Specific guidance that was provided last Friday by Walworth County was to consider using virtual instruction for at least one week after a holiday, though they felt it would be prudent to follow the 14-day quarantine period recommended by CDC. It is the first time that Walworth County has issued such a recommendation during the pandemic. Rock County’s guidance is specifically to pause in-person instruction for at least two weeks after a holiday. Following the full guidance would result in a return to in-person instruction for only seven days between Thanksgiving and the winter break. Jefferson County’s guidance has not changed; however, under their existing guidance schools would already have been pausing in-person instruction for a long time.

Several area schools have decided to pause in-person instruction for the holidays, including Cambridge (until January 25), Edgerton (Nov. 30-Jan. 18), and Milton (Nov. 30-Jan.15).

Dr. Pate-Hefty indicated that if the board decided to return to virtual instruction, she would recommend that the early childhood and 4K classes continue as is, and that face-to-face instruction time be increased for those grades using virtual instruction. A particular concern is the elementary students, whose attention can only be expected to be held to a screen for a reasonable period of time, but a proposed schedule has been developed that would provide more vitual teacher contact.

Six parents spoke in opposition to the proposal to return to virtual instruction. Some argued that students were safer at school, as evidenced by only one apparent in-school incidence of transmission. Concern was also expressed regarding virtual learning not being as effective as in-person and parents having to take time off work in order to care for children and assist with their learning.

Mandi Kolb, a 911 dispatcher, indicated that she has a child in elementary and another in Middle School. She stated that at work she is taking call after call related to COVID. Ms. Kolb stated that “we need to be kind and courteous and not blame the staff….We all want kids in school. The Board has the hardest job. It’s about the community.”

Kate McNulty, a Spanish and speech communication teacher at WHS, felt that every choice the board has made has been the “best of worse options.” She stated that she appreciated the proposal rather than to wait for serious illness. There are students who don’t feel safe. Recently she had only 9 students present of a class of 21. Rosalinda Martinez, ELL teacher at WMS/WHS stated that the health staff have worked tirelessly in doing contact tracing and notification. She has heard from many parents asking why school is still open.

Board member Kelly Davis stated that she feels the State has failed to provide leadership on the issue, pitting district against district. “Anything we do is going to be wrong,” she stated.

Member Jennifer Kienbaum stated that she has read every email and feels the frustration and anxiety from parents and staff. She has recently been visiting the schools and found good compliance with social distancing and following other guidelines.

Member Steve Ryan stated that a lot of districts that started full in-person are now going virtual. He was most concerned about reports that students do not feel safe going to school.

Member Thayer Coburn said, “We were willing to close in March; the numbers are far higher now.” He stated, however, that he wasn’t sure if all grade levels needed to be treated the same.

Member Casey Judd indicated that the new recommendations came out due to concerns with hospital capacity and lack of PPE.

It appeared that the three members who voted against the proposal might have supported pausing the Middle School and High School but either continuing full in-person or hybrid instruction at the elementary level.

In other business:

Brianna Pope was approved to be hired for Homeless Outreach under a three-year grant.

Approval was given to purchase an air cooled chiller for the High School at a cost of $293,600. The current original equipment chiller is water cooled, but according to Business Manager Matthew Sylvester-Knudtson, the advantages of air cooled equipment justify the additional cost of approximately $60,000.

The meeting adjourned at 9:00 p.m. The video of the meeting may be found here.

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