By Lea Kopke
Press Times News Intern
BROWN COUNTY – Area school districts intend to use the new Education Forward plan, an 87-page document released by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, together as a guide to further inform decisions regarding schools opening this fall.
Chris Bucher, DPI communications specialist, said the goal of the plan wasn’t to create a set of rules to follow, but an informational guide school officials could interpret for specific districts.
“Really when we worked on this, the goal was to provide considerations and specifications to district workers and offices as they work on developing plans for what the fall may look like,” Bucher said. “The middle of the pandemic is a fluid situation. It’s subject to change, and the document is constantly updated when we receive new resources.”
Topics covered in the packet include returning to schools, the learning landscape, operations, health and safety, and instructional programming.
Bucher said the guide puts safety at the forefront.
“Above all is the health (and) safety of students and staff,” he said. “With that is also considering the full health of the student or staff member, specifically the mental health aspect. When thinking about how to keep physically safe, we also have to think about mental health.”
Ashwaubenon School District
Superintendent Kurt Weyers said his district was expecting the document, but already had several weeks of planning prior to its release.
The school district created four task teams prior to the document’s release June 22, Weyers said.
Committees include health and safety, policy and communication, teaching and learning, and relationships.
“We’ve also been meeting weekly as Brown County superintendents in regard to having similar plans and consistency across Brown County,” he said. “It’s helpful for the community and parents to see consistency across districts.”
Weyers said it’s important for parents and staff to understand the purpose of the document is to serve as a set of recommendations for schools.
“Anytime we get things from the DPI, typically they’re mandates we have to follow,” he said. “When parents read it and respond to me, I keep telling them ‘Well, we don’t believe in this or this,’ and again these are recommendations and guidelines. Just because something works for Madison or Milwaukee doesn’t mean it works for Ashwaubenon.”
Green Bay Area Public Schools
Former superintendent Michelle Langenfeld said her district also knew the guide was coming and knew the district would have to contextualize it for the community.
“The guide itself is just that for us,” Langenfeld said. “We see it as a guide, and we are in the process of looking at all different parts of the guide. We’re finding gaps in our own planning as we look to ensure instructional and safety pieces and so forth. What have we missed?”
She said all of the district’s decisions will be influenced by the voices of parents, staff and the guide.
“We surveyed our parents and staff and are going through comments and putting those together to bring them forward to the board of education,” Langenfeld said. “We’re seeing what parents are expecting, what their comfort levels are, and requests for their own personal safety.”
She said the district is also meeting and planning with a group of representatives from Brown County.
This group consists of 10 Brown County school districts, Aurora, Bellin, Prevea, Brown County Health and Human Services and the Greater Green Bay Chamber.
“One thing we know is we may have parents and teachers in Green Bay who have students attending in different districts, because we’re all so closely aligned and connected,” Langenfeld said. “Our goal is also to make sure the business community and employees have a sense of what we’re doing and vice versa… so we can align as much as we can to lessen the amount of disruption.”
In planning, she said the district has laid out a set of priorities to look to when making decisions.
“One of things Green Bay has done that is important to us is define the guiding principles of priorities of bringing children back, whether we chose to be face-to-face, virtual or hybrid,” Langenfeld said. “We need to have different lenses to look through at our priorities, which are safety, health, access and equity. As we plan forward, we have to be able to deliver in all those different educational modalities.”
Langenfeld retired June 30. New superintendent Steve Murley started July 1.
Howard-Suamico School District
Superintendent Damian LaCroix said the district shared the plan with families and staff because it represents the current thinking at the state level in terms of health, instruction and school administration.
“It offers a useful starting point framework for how to think about the work in front of us,” LaCroix said. “It doesn’t give specific guidance… it’s up to us to translate the direction that it gives us and put it into a concrete plan at the local level.”
He said the district has already begun using the guide during its task force meetings to evaluate plans.
“In some cases it is affirming, in some cases it shows gaps in areas we hadn’t thought of,” LaCroix said. “Collectively we are using its good points to start high-level discussions and we are seeing how it translates to the county and school district level.”
LaCroix said the district planned to discuss the guide during the next meeting of Brown County community leaders, which he said has committed to meeting once a week through the month of July.
“We’re really putting our collective wisdom together to attack community issues and concerns regarding a safe return to school in the fall,” LaCroix said. “Employers are represented by the chamber, and Brown County health services have expertise in that area they can share with us. We’re looking to draw from the collective.”
School District of West De Pere
Director of Curriculum Amy LaPierre said a lot of the information in the plan document was already on her district’s radar, but it will still provide guidance.
“We started the planning process back in the first week of June, so we’ve already got three or four weeks of work under our belt,” LaPierre said. “It’s good to have the document to affirm work we’ve already done and it may point us in a few other directions of things we hadn’t considered.”
The district created eight committees which focus on different learning levels as well as safety, relationships, and policy and communications.
LaPierre said the plan will be used within the committees to help guide the work.
“Each committee is using the portion that applies to the work they’re doing,” she said. “They’re focusing on learning, safety and relationships. Different portions apply more directly depending on the committee.”
LaPierre said both the guide and district plans are changing as the pandemic develops and more research is done.
“Everyone is anxious to know what school is going to look like when fall rolls around,” she said.
“We don’t have easy answers yet. This is a long process and things are fluid, so plans can change pretty quickly.”
Unified School District of De Pere
Superintendent Ben Villarruel said he believes the document is a solid guide to help school districts develop plans for reopening.
“The document is a tool to help you make decisions with regards to reopening schools and how to go about doing it,” Villarruel said. “It also contains a number of issues that districts should consider when developing plans for reopening. We can take it all in and use it in our own planning.”
He said the district developed its decision-making process in early May and began planning with several staff committees once school let out in early June.
“We’ve broken up the groups to consider various issues regarding students, families, facilities and curriculum to understand what our challenges are, what are our priorities and when do we need to make decisions,” he said. “And now the DPI tool will help us to make sure we don’t miss anything.”
Villarruel said though the specifics of the 2020-21 school are yet to be determined, the district knows it will not be a normal return.
“Sept. 1 will look very different from Sept. 1 of 2019,” he said. “As you know, the virus exists in our community. Hopefully when we open Sept. 1, the spread of the virus will be under control, so we can make decisions that will be having our students back in class.”