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Green Bay school board seeks expert opinions on return

By Heather Graves

GREEN BAY – Green Bay students begin the 2020-21 school year virtually in a matter of days. When they will return to the classroom for in-person instruction, however, is still unknown.

The school board is looking to the Brown County Health Department to provide guidance on a gating criteria proposal for a return to on-site learning.

In a special meeting Monday, Aug. 24, the board discussed recommendations from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) to draft a plan to get students to return to classrooms.

Though the DHS offered schools guidance on preventing, investigating and handling COVID-19 outbreaks, there is little guidance on getting students back to school.

“There’s a great deal of frustration that we don’t have more guidance, whether it’s at the federal level, the state level, or even our county level,” said Superintendent Steve Murley.

The board agreed a two-bucket approach – where students in grades PreK-5 are given higher priority than students in grades 6-12 – is best suited for the district.

“National experts have recommended that grades PreK-5 and in-person special education services at grade levels PreK-8 be given first priority,” Murley said. “They have been talking about it from the standpoint of who is most readily able to take advantage of online learning in a virtual learning environment. The older the students get, the better exposed they are to take advantage of it. Our elementary children will have more difficulty with an online environment in general than our secondary kids will.”

Trustee Andrew Becker shared a gating criteria he formulated using some of the DHS recommendations.

“There is nothing great or exciting about this,” Becker said. “It represents weighing very real problems. The problems of if we don’t open and the problems of if we open too much, too soon.”

Becker’s proposal includes a higher threshold for students to get into a blended model, but then a lower threshold to then move from blended into a full onsite model, when compared to the recommendations set forth by the DHS.

“I think the case activity burden rate for Brown County is what’s best to use,” he said. “It’s easiest to follow. It is not driven by how many negative tests there are. I’m not hiding anything about the fact that I think the state makes it impossible (to get back to onsite). Honestly, I don’t think the state’s high, medium and low (DHS transmission metrics) are reasonable for most communities with schools. And unless something new came out, the state didn’t make those for schools either. They just came up with a high, medium and a low, and a moderately-high (DHS transmission metric) to let people back in.”

Some board members were concerned one member was the leading force behind the proposed criteria.

“I’m not comfortable with having one board member be the driver of all this data, data that I am not familiar with,” said Trustee Laura McCoy. “I appreciate all that work, clearly there is a lot that has gone into it, but I would feel more comfortable with more of a team approach here. And I feel Steve and his team have been working on this a long time. There are so many hypotheticals that I’m not comfortable with this.”

The board voted unanimously to send Becker’s proposed criteria to the Brown County Health Department for review.

“We appreciate the work that Andrew has put into this, but before anyone feels comfortable with it, we’d like at least someone to react to it,” said Board President Eric Vanden Heuvel. “We want medical professionals. We want people who have expertise in these areas to make these decisions or at least weigh-in on those decisions.”

The board will have a second reading of the proposed criteria at its Sept. 14 meeting, after receiving feedback from county health.

“If we can get that reaction by Sept. 14, then people would feel more comfortable supporting it,” Vanden Heuvel said. “At the end of the day, the board wants the advice of medical professionals in guiding these decisions, and that is what we will get before revisiting this topic again.”

Murley said before DHS announced it would release recommendations, the county health department was working on guiding principles of its own for schools, however, it paused its efforts in anticipation of the DHS recommendations.

Murley said the county has since restarted those efforts.

“I do think we owe it to them and the expertise they have in this arena to give us feedback on what we’re looking at,” he said.

Regardless of the gating criteria, administration is at work preparing for the return of students, whenever that may be.

Murley said cohort information, in regards to a blended model for a return to schools, will be sent out to parents shortly.

“One thing that is going out to parents shortly is a written communication on the cohort process that we are going to use so that parents know what cohort their child will be assigned to,” he said. “And we’re being very deliberate about that so that we can do almost a 50/50 split of children in the district, regardless of which grade band we are looking at with the idea that when those kids are in school as they go through that initial process that we will have lots of opportunities to keep them physically distant. Whether that’s in their classrooms or when they are in other common areas of the building.”

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