By Heather Graves
GREEN BAY – After lengthy discussion at its special board meeting Monday, Aug. 3, the Green Bay school board voted in favor of a virtual start for the 2020-21 school year.
The motion to begin the year with off-site instruction passed with a 5-2 vote, with Trustees Rhonda Sitnikau and Andrew Becker opposed.
“As much as I want our district to serve as a leader, in this instance I would rather be a follower and see how others are able to respond,” said Board President Eric Vanden Heuvel. “Because we don’t know what this virus does to an open school, and I don’t want to be the guinea pig to be out there first to see how it impacts our kids or our staff.”
Administration recommended the virtual start based on guidelines from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Brown County Health Department, noting at this time off-site learning is the safest option for students, teachers and staff.
“We recognize that all the choices we have in front of us are not good choices,” said Superintendent Steve Murley. “Students in classrooms with teachers is always our first choice. Unfortunately, because of the state of the nation, the state of Wisconsin, the state of Brown County, we found ourselves in a place tonight that we are trying to make the best bad choice that we have available to us.”
District administration will review the data weekly with a 14-day period positivity metric of 5 percent or less in Brown County as the threshold for a possible move to a blended format.
The board would vote on a transition away from virtual into a blended approach at that time under the guidance of the local medical and health professionals.
“We really thought about this in terms of a staged process,” Murley said. “When we think about a progression back to on-site, we recognize that blended learning serves as the bridge to that. Part of our planning process is to get from off-site learning to blended learning as quickly as possible, because that gives us then the opportunity to get to on-site learning as quickly as possible.”
Some students, such as special education students or English language learners, will be allowed to attend school in a limited capacity.
“I want to tell everyone that I have never had to make a decision this difficult in my life, and I understand the gravity of this situation,” said Board Vice President Kristina Shelton. “We have been put into an impossible situation. Ultimately, this decision is the least awful of impossible choices.”
Board members expressed appreciation to the nearly 100 parents and community members who shared their thoughts and concerns during the public listening session Sunday, Aug. 2, along with the hundreds of others who sent emails and left voicemails.
Vanden Heuvel said he has many of the same worries as other parents, but he said believes a gradual return is the best option for the district.
“When I sit at the board table, I try to look solely through the lens of a board member, setting my other personal and professional roles aside,” he said. “However, in this instance, I can’t help but see things through the most important role that I have, being a dad. When I think about the upcoming school year for my son and daughter in kindergarten and first grade, I feel angry, confused, frustrated, isolated, helpless and sad. And I know I am not alone because I have heard from so many in our community who have expressed similar feelings. People point to the low percentage of death in students as a reason it is safe to open. I am not going to quote an exact statistic, but let’s imagine it was 1 in 10,000. That may seem low, but it would imply that two students in the Green Bay Public Schools would die this year. Maybe that doesn’t mean much to some people because it probably won’t be their kids. In my view, they are all our kids.”
Noah Becker, president of the Intercity Student Council, said students are concerned with the uncertainty in regards to a return to in-person classes.
“What this looks like to students is school is never coming back, it’s an indefinite postponement,” he said. “That’s the perception. Whether that’s true or not, that’s what it looks like.”
Sitnikau expressed concern for families who work and won’t be able to be to help their children with their virtual learning.
“It’s important to recognize that we have many working families,” Sitnikau said. “This off-site virtual option may in fact solve some problems but it will create many more for other families. We know this. They’ve told us. And I think instead of saying they might be unhappy or they may be angry, of they’ve been accused of whining. The reality is, they are desperate, out of options and hopeless. I’m interested in what I’m supposed to tell these families.”
Murley said groups are working with community partners to determine capacities for support systems for families.
Groups are also looking into having a variety of teachers available during evening hours to help students.
Following the vote, the board directed administration to investigate extended learning sites within the community and directed the district to provide support for students and families.
Murley said more details on these will be brought to the board at its Aug. 17 meeting.