By Eric Timmons
Students, teachers and parents had warned Onalaska School District officials that they were making a mistake to return to in-person classes last Monday.
Over 300 had signed a petition to highlight concerns about the decision and how it was reached, including what they saw as a disregard for a key metric the district had said would help guide its reasoning. Within a few days, the concerns were proven valid when the district canceled in-person learning and switched classes back to a virtual setting.
A similar situation played out in Holmen, where parents had also expressed concern about the decision to return to in-person classes, which was reversed as COVID-19 cases spiked last week.
In La Crosse, the district had announced on Oct. 14 that elementary students would return to in-person classes on Oct. 26, but just five days before that date officials changed course. All classes will now remain virtual for La Crosse students until at least Nov. 15.
For teachers and other staff, the back and forth has created extra work and added to an already high-stress situation.
Onalaska Superintendent Todd Antony’s announcement on Oct. 21 that the district would bring students back into classrooms triggered a scramble among teachers and administrators, some of whom worked through the weekend to get buildings and materials ready.
“We had four days that have been a tremendous grind, in terms of preparing for students to get them ready for today,” Onalaska High School teacher Darwin Greschner told the school board last Monday. “I feel like I should not be meeting teachers on zooms on a Friday night, I should not be meeting them on a Sunday night, to address some of the concerns that they have.”
Greschner said teachers needed more time to prepare for a return to in-person classes. He also raised questions about how the district used the Harvard Model, a set of metrics used to determine when it might be safe to return to in-person learning. One part of the model advises against in-person classes if the seven day covid case rate per 100,000 people is over 25. But the number was higher than 25 when the district decided to bring students back to school, although the trend looked better at that time than it does now. The rate for La Crosse County is currently at 35.5 and growing, according to the most recent update.
Antony, speaking at Monday’s board meeting, said the case rate was not the only factor taken into consideration, adding that safety measures put into place in school buildings also informed the decision to call students back.
“While not hitting the precise threshold, I believe that it was time to bring students back to school,” he said. “This is a decision that can certainly be debated, however I believe it was a decision that was made with the inherent administrative flexibility of the approved plan.”
Antony added that if an increasing trend in cases was identified, plans to move back to virtual learning would commence, which was exactly what happened soon after he spoke at the board meeting.
“We’re going to burn out the best teachers the fastest”
Teachers in the Onalaska district felt their concerns were not heard through the process and that they were not being “set up for success,” Greschner told the school board.
‘I still feel like we’re going to burn out the best teachers the fastest and if over the course of the next eight months, and I’ve said it since the beginning of the year, we don’t lose a teacher, one doesn’t quit before the end of the year, this is a good year,” he said.
In Holmen, parent Amy Taebel spoke at the district’s Oct. 26 school board meeting to raise her concerns about a return to in-person classes. She also questioned how the district was evaluating coronavirus metrics.
“Whether or not Holmen wants to use a different model at this time, it doesn’t matter, what matters is the county and our community and we are impacting them whether we want to or not so I don’t know how we think we are going to live in our own little world of Holmen School District, we need to look at the greater community,” she said. “We are not headed in the right direction.”
Taebel noted that Holmen’s teachers were doing an “amazing job” for their students in the new virtual setting and she wanted that to continue, rather than take the risk of sending students back into school buildings.
“Do the right thing, protect our families and our community and remain in a virtual setting,” she urged the board.
There was a similar message from another Holmen parent, Josh Rice, who pleaded with the board to consider the risk sending students back to school posed to vulnerable family members.
“You as a board, need to accept the responsibility of that and that is a heavy responsibility,” he said.
Back in Onalaska, school board president Ann Garrity told the La Crosse Independent she did not think the district had made a mistake by calling students back into classrooms. She said the district had to act quickly to resume virtual learning when the county warned that local hospitals were filling up at an alarming rate last week.
“We can communicate better,” she acknowledged. “Unfortunately this is a situation where there are strong feelings on either side of this issue, and we have to make decisions based on what’s being reported to us by the county.”
With covid cases remaining at a stubbornly high rate in the region as the holiday season approaches, districts officials and school boards will have to continue making tough decisions.
In Onalaska, the group of students who launched the petition drive questioning the return to in-person learning, urged those officials to listen to “student and teacher input” and create a model takes into account the “mental, social, and physical wellbeing of students, staff, and teachers.”
But the risks posed by the pandemic are not the only consideration facing school districts as they consider whether to keep students at home versus resuming in-person classes.
John Rury, professor emeritus at the University of Kansas, is one of many experts who are warning that distance learning could widen racial and socio-economic achievement gaps. Rury is author of a study on those disparities.
“The working-class kids are much more school-dependent to get the skills for a knowledge-based economy,” he said in an article published by Stateline. “Take away that interactive [in-person] schooling, that puts them at a disadvantage compared to the kids of the college educated, who can more likely work at home. [In-person] school mitigates class differences.”
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