Remote learning extended at Ashwaubenon until Jan. 11
By Kevin Boneske
ASHWAUBENON – Eight days after backing a partial return to in-person instruction following the Thanksgiving break, the school board voted unanimously Thursday, Nov. 19, to extend remote learning districtwide in Ashwaubenon until Jan. 11.
Based on COVID-19 numbers since the last meeting, the district’s administrative team recommended continuing remote learning into the winter break and also have another week of remote instruction after the break (Jan. 4-8).
This allows families to be aware of close contacts from gatherings over the holidays prior to returning to school.
“We believe it to be a proactive measure in keeping our schools safe and in mitigating potential spread as a result of such gatherings,” said Superintendent Kurt Weyers.
Weyers said he hopes by Jan. 11 numbers on the spread of COVID-19 will be similar to when the school year began at Ashwaubenon with students attending classes in-person.
“Our numbers continue to be extremely high, and the risk of transmission in our community continues to be a huge risk,” he said.
When the school board met Nov. 19, Weyers said over the past 14 days the burden rate in Brown County of people testing positive for COVID-19 was 1,236 per 100,000, with the percentage of positive tests at 38.1 percent.
“I know that I’ve been saying, as well as the board, that we will use this data as guidance,” he said. “But even if do not lock into a particular number, these numbers consistently are much higher than when decided to go remote (in late September).”
Weyers said the administrative recommendation to have remote learning until Jan. 11 would provide consistency to students, staff and families.
“There are no easy decisions, probably no right decisions, just decisions, based on what our board and our administrative team feels best for our students and staff,” he said. “Clearly, we have staff, families and students and community members on both sides… We’ve all heard directly from all of them.”
Weyers said he also heard directly from many high school students who stated they “should absolutely not come back at this time” because they adapted to “a pattern that they like and are having lots of success academically” with remote learning.
“I’ve also heard from those who feel we should be back (in school) tomorrow,” he said. “It’s very clear, by the hundreds of emails and phone calls, not only I have, but the board has received, that this community is very split, 50-50, on this topic.”
Weyers said the district’s goal is to have in-person learning.
“In-person is clearly better,” he said. “We get it. We know. Rightfully, we are all concerned for the mental health of our students… I’m equally concerned about the mental health of our staff.”
The school year began in-person Sept. 1, when measures were in place to prevent the virus from spreading and students uncomfortable about returning to the classroom were allowed to learn virtually.
The district switched to remote instruction Oct. 1 because of COVID-19 spread in the community and not having enough substitutes in late September to cover staff absences.
Weyers said 20 substitutes have signed a contract with the district to be available at Ashwaubenon.
To get substitute teachers to commit exclusively to Ashwaubenon and agree not to substitute in neighboring districts, he said the district is offering daily substitutes the long-term substitute rate, increasing daily pay from $152 to $222.
The school buildings haven’t been totally off-limits to students while remote learning has been taking place the past two months.
The district is allowing small groups of students in the schools for short durations, such as on Wednesdays at the high school for shop projects and labs, and also is working in-person with students who have special needs.
Feedback to board
Board president Jay Van Laanen said deciding on the type of instruction to offer during the pandemic is a difficult and divisive topic, given the concerns expressed to board members about the negative effect remote learning is having on many students and the risk of contracting the virus with a return to in-person instruction Jan. 11.
“I have gotten, and I’m sure everybody else has gotten, over 100 emails since Nov. 1 on both sides of the spectrum here, whether it’s being virtual or bringing kids back to school,” he said.
Board Vice President Brian Van De Kreeke said he’s also found the community “split right down the middle” on whether to have remote or in-person instruction.
“You’ve got parents that are very outspoken… and we hear from staff the concerns about going back and the potential for issues,” he said. “I agree we’ve done everything right. The guidance information that we are using certainly doesn’t look all that positive right now…”
Van De Kreeke said it may take a long time before a COVID-19 vaccine is available locally.
“It might be this time next year before things get back to normal, so I think the idea or the concept that (the administrative team is) proposing makes good sense,” he said. “But I think also that we will look at the guidance information, but that it’s not going to drive when we go back to school. If we see things improving and can get back into classes, I think we want to do that.”
Van De Kreeke said he favored making decisions “for the good of all the students and staff, and all of our stakeholders, so at some point it’s going to come to that.”
Board Secretary Jennifer Vyskocil said she would like to see students back in school, but there currently isn’t a downward trend the in the community for COVID-19 spread.
“I’m not putting all my eggs in a basket that after Thanksgiving all of a sudden we’re going to see a downturn and everything’s going to be good,” she said. “I don’t know that that’s going to happen. I’m not feeling good about that.”
Board member Paul Trondson said he didn’t like putting a specific date on when students could return.
“If things kind of trend down, I really would not want to wait until (Jan.) 11 to kind of make that decision…,” he said. “We still have to be respectful to the parents and give them time to plan, but yet if things started trending better before that time, I would hate for us to wait until a set date on the 11th to kind of make that decision.”
Weyers said the Jan. 11 date set for the board for a possible return of in-person instruction would be re-revaluated by the board at its Dec. 9 meeting.
Board Treasurer Michelle Garrigan, who was the only board member Nov. 11 to oppose the motion for a partial return to in-person instruction after the Thanksgiving break, said her decision comes down to risk.
Garrigan said she favored allowing small groups of student-athletes at Ashwaubenon to begin practices for winter sports as of Nov. 16, but not in-person school as of Nov. 30.
“The students who choose to play sports are doing it voluntarily, and I did not hear any complaints from coaches that they are not willing to take the risk of winter sports,” she said.
Garrigan said allowing winter sports came down to choice.
“I think winter sports are risky,” she said. “I wish that we weren’t doing that, but because it’s all voluntary, I voted for winter sports only to let parents make their own choices as to the amount of risk that they are willing to take.”
The board has a special meeting scheduled for Monday, Nov. 30, to consider whether to proceed with allowing competitive sporting events at Ashwaubenon in December.
Garrigan said teachers don’t have a choice on having to follow whatever the board decides on remote learning and in-person instruction.
“We have immune-compromised teachers,” she said. “I just cannot take that risk of sending immune-compromised (teachers in the classroom at risk of getting COVID-19). We can do all things we would want to make them safe, but there still not safe… especially at this time with community spread so high.”
Garrigan broke into tears when addressing the parents of students who are struggling with remote learning.
“I’m sorry, I do feel it… and I wish the community spread was different,” she said. “I wish things were different… I feel bad for all those kids, but I can’t put staff at risk.”
Garrigan suggested the board evaluate its decision-making guidance on returning to in-person learning so that it could agree on the criteria for having students back in school.
Van Laanen said science indicates students shouldn’t be back in school, with several nearby districts also presently having remote learning, and he hopes waiting to return until Jan. 11 will result in people affected by COVID-19 being healthy at that point.
“It doesn’t have to be a magic number (related to a decreasing amount of positive cases per 100,000 people),” he said. “It doesn’t have to be 600, it doesn’t have to be 700, but we need to see some drastic changes going down in a downward direction.”