By Peter Gorski
The La Crosse School District has released proposed guidelines for the reopening of schools for in-person classes that attempt to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 for students and teachers, although many questions remain.
A blended model is likely to be introduced with a mix of online and in-person classes to reduce the number of students in school buildings at any one time. Families not comfortable with sending their children back to school will be able to continue with online classes.
The draft guidelines also show that the district will attempt to be ready to revert to fully-online learning, if necessary. District Superintendent Aaron Engel, speaking at Monday’s school board meeting, said the district’s priority was the safety of staff and students, and plans could change based on the county health department’s view of the risk from COVID-19.
The district’s draft reopening guidelines can be viewed here. They were discussed at Monday’s school board meeting, with the board expected to vote on whether to adopt the guidelines when it meets Aug. 3. However, the proposals on reopening could still be altered before the meeting, depending on the trajectory of the virus and other factors.
“The documents provide an overview of all the factors that would have to be considered for in-person learning to happen,” board president Dr. Laurie Cooper Stoll told the La Crosse Independent. “At the moment, we have far more questions than we have answers to. Every option that exists has myriad consequences. With a global pandemic we need a plan A, B, C, and D.”
The district outlines social distancing policies, proposed requirements around mask wearing and one person per seat rules on school buses, moving classrooms as a unit separately to avoid interaction between classrooms, using drinking fountains for bottle filling only, and moving as needed between online and in-person learning as ways to defend against the spread of COVID-19.
While the document is thorough and well laid out, many are likely to have doubts as to how effective the policies will be. Children don’t have the same capacity as adults to physically distance and, while policy can be planned, it is uncertain how closely students can be expected to follow these guidelines.
A school in Tomah has already had its first case of COVID after reopening just a week ago. The school isn’t requiring masks for students and teachers, but is practicing social distancing. It remains to be seen how far the virus can spread after entering a school system. Students travel from across neighborhoods and are mixed together in classrooms, which could serve as a fertile network for viral transmission across a community.
The case in Tomah also highlights the issue of how contact tracing and closure will be handled in the event of positive cases in La Crosse. If a student or teacher tests positive and has been in the facilities, tracing out possible contact will force school officials to make a tough decision between facility closures or the risk of continued spread as contacts are chased down.
Funding for the staff, supplies, and extra labor hours needed for the implementation of these new procedures is another question that school administrators will have to answer. With a nationwide economic downturn underway, it’s still unclear how budgetary shortfalls for the state will impact school funding in the coming year.
Teachers may face the added pressure of keeping classrooms as sterile and safe as possible while managing new blended learning environments and overseeing children’s adherence to safe distancing and mitigation procedures.
“Even if there is an in-person element, we can’t assume we won’t have to go back online at some point if conditions in the county change,” Cooper Stoll said. “There has to be more support for teaching online, and the district is planning professional development for teachers this fall in August. In the event of a large outbreak the system has to be ready to go fully online.”
An academic regression (often referred to as the ‘Summer Slide’) during the summer months when many schools close is a well documented phenomenon, with some studies showing that students lose an entire month of education during the extended break. The resulting academic regression caused by the COVID lockdown has not been assessed, but some students are sure to be worse off from the change in learning model.
Students have been facing a wide array of environments at home. Some are well suited to virtual learning while others have struggled with virtual classrooms. Parental availability and educational skills are also varying, and students with parents or guardians who have the free time to support their schooling from home are more likely to succeed in an online learning model.
As more parents and guardians head back to work in the fall due to decreasing unemployment benefits and loss of qualification due to businesses reopening, more students will lose that in-home support. The government expansion of unemployment benefits ends on July 25, and it remains to be seen whether Congress will agree to an extension of the higher benefits.
The district plans include emphasis on early identification of students who are falling behind due to the new learning environment, and making direct interventions with support services. There is still concern that some students who are simply not suited to virtual learning will be left behind, even with if those support services are available.