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De Pere school board relaxes reopening criteria

By Ben Rodgers

DE PERE – The De Pere school board is relaxing the criteria for reopening schools after a special meeting Monday, Nov. 9.

Nearly 400 people tuned into the virtual meeting where the board decided the established gating criteria from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was too strict.

Under the old criteria, the district would have transitioned to blended instruction in when positive COVID-19 cases in Brown County were between 20 and 50 per 100,000 for two consecutive weeks and the positivity rate was between 5 and 8 percent.

On Monday, the board approved to change that number to 600 per 100,000 for two consecutive weeks, and to remove the percent positivity metric entirely.

“I wonder if there is anyone else out there willing to say anything different than the CDC,” said David Youngquist, board president. “I don’t question the CDC’s number or target. I just think they’re not aligned with our purpose to open up the schools and still salvage part of the school year.”

On Nov. 10, the district’s COVID-19 dashboard reported 1,246 cases per 100,000.

At its Nov. 2 meeting, the board asked administration to develop a plan to open back up to some form of in-person learning, based on the positive cases in September.

“It went from 250 to 800 (positive cases) in a month, so we’re picking a time when we had exponential growth in both numbers,” said Bob Matthews, board member. “So having said that, if we get to 600, the trend is coming down.”

Joseph Connelly, data and assessment specialist, worked on the original criteria based on the recommendations from the CDC, which came out in mid September, after the district already opened to in-person instruction.

“I have a background in numbers, but I don’t have a background in epidemiology, I don’t have a background in the spread of disease, that aspect of it,” Connelly said. “That’s really why you look toward what the CDC is showing as a risk level, because those experts are few and far between, and they get to a point where they’re publishing that kind of thing and we would do best to heed that guidance when we can. I don’t know if we have anybody who is qualified to say this level is safe.”

Youngquist said the choice was about keeping the community safe, but not doing so at the expense of students.

“We didn’t shut down at 600, we didn’t shut down at 650,” he said. “I’m trying to salvage this school year with a realistic target.”

The board didn’t discuss if the 600 per 100,000 was for a move to blended learning or for full in-person instruction.

Student switch

The board also discussed the ability for students and families to switch mid semester or trimester from face-to-face learning to virtual learning or vice versa.

Dickinson Elementary School Principal Luke Herlache said to move midstream is difficult.

For example, he said there are five sections of third grade at Dickinson, with four in-person sections and one virtual.

Herlache said if five kids from each class decided to go virtual, the school would need to add another virtual section and take an in-person teacher and move that teacher virtual.

He said that would result in students getting a new teacher in the middle of the year.

“We’ve put a lot of effort and value into building heterogeneous groups with balance in each room to make sure all kids’ academic, social, emotional and behavioral and other needs are met and we’re able to do that,” Herlache said.

He said it generally takes about three to four weeks of planning to line everything up before a switch.

The board agreed to direct administration to send out a parent survey to initially gauge how many are interested in making a switch, so staff can be better prepared.

Quarantine woes

Finally, the board looked at quarantine and contact tracing procedures, because a number of teachers at the Nov. 2 meeting expressed the challenge of teaching a mixed class.

Superintendent Ben Villarruel said the CDC recently released new guidelines on social distancing, which will result in more quarantined students and staff once the district reopens.

“I can’t predict the future, every community is different, but in a district that has recently reopened, 14 percent of the student body is quarantined,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s a large number because of an outbreak, or it’s due to large community spread and people coming into contact in the community and coming into school. If and when the district reopens in the community, there will be quarantines. That’s part of the environment we’re dealing with… It’s not a reason to open or a reason to stay closed. That’s a reality when school opens that students and staff will be quarantined.”

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