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De Pere schools look to January in-person return

By Heather Graves

DE PERE – The De Pere school district has set its sights on a possible return to in-person instruction after the new year.

Superintendent Ben Villarruel proposed the January return to the board at a special meeting Monday, Dec. 7.

“At a national level, certainly, they’ve felt based on what they’ve seen, they have encouraged schools to do whatever they can to remain open for face-to-face instruction,” Villarruel said. “So, it’s in that spirit that we are presenting this plan.”

Students have been in a virtual learning model since late September, after the district began experiencing teacher and/or staff shortages.

“We did not close because it was the end of government funding or at a request of anyone outside our district,” said David Youngquist, board president. “We were about to have a serious problem with students coming to school with a gap in our teachers being available in some of those schools.”

He said the district has remained closed “to help slow the spread of the virus in the community per the urging of county and city officials.”

Over the course of the last few months, the board worked collaboratively with administration to create a 10-point plan to guide the decision of reopening.

“Each point of the plan was designed to reduce the risk as much as possible, so we could avoid closing again in the future,” Youngquist said.

Based on recently updated recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other medical professionals, the district feels now is the time to start looking at a return to in-person learning, while still adhering to safety recommendations.

“What I’ve learned in this pandemic is that new information leads to different conclusions,” Villarruel said. “We are following the direction of the CDC. We have been consistent with that as a district, and we will continue to be consistent. As a local community, a nation and a world learn more about COVID-19, certainly there will be changes, and certainly when the vaccine is rolled out and distributed to our families that will also change our plans again. I’ve learned that we have had to change direction many times, and we’ve had to develop new plans for what science has offered us.”

If approved by the board at its meeting Monday, Dec. 14, the district would return to the grade-level approach that was in place at the beginning of the year:

• Grades 4K-6 – five days/week in-person.

• Grades 7-12 – blended learning (cohorts A and B attend school in-person two days/week, learn virtually on Wednesdays).

The plan has grades 4K-6 starting Jan. 11. Grades 7-12 would return on Jan. 19 and 21 respectively.

Youngquist said he is hesitant about a Jan. 11 return for elementary students, saying it’s too close to the holidays and fears a major spike in cases.

“I’m of the opinion that there is going to be a high number of cases on Jan. 11 after the holidays, and it is my opinion that it is going to cause chaos and confusion for the younger students,” he said. “So if this is the proposal, I will vote ‘no’ because of the date. I’m only voting ‘no’ because of the date, not because of the concept.”

Others feel comfortable with the plan, for now.

Board member Bob Mathews said he agrees a lot can happen between now and then, but supports the Jan. 11 date.

“We are going to continue to evaluate, but our plan is to open the 11th based off of what we know,” Mathews said. “This could be subject to change. We are planning to open up. That is our plan. That is what we are moving toward. But there are situations and instances that could derail this. But our plan and all of our actions and all of our efforts are moving toward those dates.”

If the board approves the plan and reopens in January, any closures in the future would be handled on a building by building basis.

District leadership will monitor attendance and absences of all grade levels on a daily basis.

If absences in grades 4K-6 exceed 33 percent of a school’s population on two out of three days, a one to two week closure will take place.

A building closure for grades 7-12 will be needed if student absences exceed 25 percent.

Villarruel stressed regardless of the plan, four mitigating strategies need to be in place for this to work – wear masks, social distance, hand washing and remaining home when experiencing any kind of symptoms.

Parents have another opportunity to choose between a return to in-person instruction (when buildings re-open) or remain in the virtual learning model.

The deadline for families to make this decision is Dec. 18.

All teachers would be required to return to teach in person.

Villarruel said if teachers have health concerns, the district would work with them on a case-by-case basis.

“We had meetings all last week with teachers about recommending a return,” he said. “Some are excited, some are cautious, others are worried.”

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