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De Pere schools to remain virtual until at least Nov. 24

By Ben Rodgers

DE PERE – More than 650 people spent Monday, Nov. 2, watching the De Pere school board virtually decide to keep schools closed to in-person instruction to at least Nov. 24.

“There’s a lot of you who want your kids to go back to schools next week, I heard from many of you,” said Jeff Mirkes, board member. “There’s a lot and you provided to me you want your child to go back to school next week. School is not ready for your child to go back to school next week. That’s where we need to come together.”

Board member Dan Van Straten said he has seen “finger pointing,” and “throwing stones,” about the district’s previous decision to remain virtual in De Pere schools.

He said some residents have gone as far to call the school board corrupt, say there is poor leadership and call teachers lazy.

“I think we need to get those doors open as soon as we possibly can,” Van Straten said. “However, we have civic responsibility to keep everyone safe. That certainly is the most important thing. I’d really like to see some civility in our community. We’re all trying to reach a common goal.”

Board member Mark Meneau agreed it was time to come together as a community.

“Everybody is allowed their voice, I totally get it, but some of the emails and other things that have been going on, it’s pulling us further apart instead of bringing us together,” he said. “I think that’s the one thing concerning me is that this is really just pulling two sides in different directions. It’s unfortunate because we should be working together to come up with a solution that meets everyone’s needs and puts everyone in the right place.”

Board president David Youngquist came up with following 10 points to consider when looking at reopening De Pere schools:

• Continue collaboration with other school districts for best-in-class ideas.

• Re-start the COVID-19 dashboard reporting on the district website that was stopped in September.

• Evaluate all staffing, not just teachers, and personal protection equipment needs to determine if there are any gaps.

• Continue to mandate the wearing of masks.

• Reinforce social distancing because district buildings were not designed for it, and this to Youngquist is what’s different between a store/office/place of worship and a school being able to be open.

• If the district has to shut down again in the future due to lack of teachers or positive cases, do so school by school so all schools are not shut down again.

• Continue to leverage revised contact tracing so the district can minimize who needs to be quarantined.

• Evaluate limiting and minimizing non-classroom events in districts buildings/gyms to sustain staying open.

• Determine if the district can offer parents the opportunity to change the choice they made in August regarding in-person or virtual learning.

• The approved gating criteria for the two core indicator targets for schools to be open are prohibitive to Youngquist, so he wants administration to design two targets for the board to consider; the first is the levels the district was at in September, or a target where the district is trending down X percent over Y weeks.

As it currently stands, a transition to blended instruction could happen when cases are between 20 and 50 per 100,000 Brown County residents for two consecutive weeks and the positivity rate is between 5 and 8 percent.

The district COVID-19 dashboard showed those community indicators at 1,143 new cases per 100,000 residents and 39.2 percent positivity Tuesday, Nov. 3.

“Regardless of any opinion in the community, when we should reopen we have to have employees available, and they have to be kept safe,” Youngquist said.

The board will look at updated gating criteria proposals from administration for De Pere schools at its Nov. 16 meeting.

Hearing from educators

Before the board made its decision, it heard from six educators from district schools.

“At this point, they (students) seem to have that system down, so a lot more learning can take place, because they know how to use the technology,” said Jeff Flesh, a fourth-grade teacher at Susie C. Altmayer Elementary School.

He also said there are struggles related to student success, because virtual teaching is tied more to the individual student’s motivation.

April Smith, a special education teacher at Altmayer, echoed Flesh’s concerns about virtual teaching, but said it also helps some of her students.

“I find that the virtual environment has proven to be helpful for some of my students just because they are able to work at their own pace,” she said. “It may mean they have fewer distractions, longer processing time, or just more time to complete a task.”

At Foxview Intermediate School, sixth-grade teacher Erin Krueger said virtual learning now gives her nearly 100 percent attendance every day, which wasn’t the case when the school year started.

“Before we transitioned to virtual learning, I never had a full class of students, not one day,” she said. “On my best days, one or two students were quarantined due to exposure, on the worst days, one-fifth of my class would be missing.”

She said the educational results from a recent chapter of math are also the same she would expect from in-person teaching.

Multiple teachers had concerns about students not turning on their webcams during instruction, which makes it difficult for teachers to gauge comprehension.

However, Paul Roup, an English teacher at De Pere High School, said not every house has the Wi-Fi capabilities to support multiple students and a parent on different webcams.

“In a lot of ways, I think things are kind of going along like my classes would normally if we were in person,” Roup said. “We’re definitely going to miss that face-to-face, one-on-one time. As a captive audience, you’re able to get through those kids a little more, but all things considered, I think the rhythm and consistently has been an improvement since we’ve gone fully virtually. But, like everyone else and my colleagues at the high school, we can’t wait to get back fully in person.”

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