Return to Learn gaining momentum in Howard-Suamico
By Ben Rodgers
SUAMICO – The Howard-Suamico school board learned Monday, Dec. 14, plans are moving forward to bring students back as part of the district’s Return to Learn plan.
“Today, ironically, was the first day the Pfizer vaccine was shipped out and presumably arrived in the states,” said Superintendent Damian LaCroix. “One thing I said to our COVID response team was let’s not miss the opportunity to pause and think about how incredible that really is.”
The district moved to virtual learning due to increased COVID-19 positive cases Sept. 30 and resumed some form of in-person learning for younger students Dec. 2.
LaCroix said there has been an “emerging awareness” on the national level in regards to in-person learning.
“The interesting thing is that in September we had the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) introducing the gating criteria after the school year started and we determined our plans,” he said. “Then, two months later, we had Robert Redfield, the head of the CDC, taking a pretty strong stance saying whereby schools should stay open during the pandemic.”
Redfield made those comments three days after the school board last met, Nov. 16, and determined it was time to start the Return to Learn plan based on opinions from local health care officials.
Also, after that meeting, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said to “close the bars and keep the schools open.”
“Dr. Fauci’s position is that in-person classes should be the default position,” LaCroix said. “We should start there and work backwards. Reasonable people can disagree. Qualified people can disagree. They have, and we will probably continue to have, some of that moving forward. But a voice I’ve listened to throughout this, Dr. Fauci, said, ‘Let’s get kids back in school.’”
Brian Nicol, director of communications, updated the board on COVID-19 positive case numbers in Brown County from the district’s dashboard.
He said the main core indicator, the number of positive cases over 14 days for every 100,000 people, was down to 657, the lowest it’s been since Sept. 21.
Nicol said when the district transitioned to virtual learning, that number was 835.
The district’s original reopening criteria wanted that number to be below 200.
Nicol also said the percent positive metric has been declining for a few weeks and is now at 31.5 percent for a 14-day percentage of positive tests.
The original criteria wanted that number below 10 percent.
Finally, he said hospitals are beginning to have more room, with the percentage of occupied hospital beds and ICU beds occupied just above 75 percent.
LaCroix said the district is on track with the Return to Learn plan to be able to open schools to some form of in-person learning for all students by Jan. 11.
“We’re not going back to normal,” he said. “We’re going to go forward to new. Then the question, of course, is what does that mean, and I don’t know exactly. I wish I did, but we’re in the early stages of starting to think through what does new look like as we look to the future.”
LaCroix said the district plans to have all students back for in-person learning five days a week, unless parents opt out by Feb. 15.
At the last meeting, board member Vanessa Moran said teachers should have the right to choose to be back in the classroom, because they shouldn’t have “to choose between their job and their life.”
She asked where the district was with this caveat to the Return to Learn plan.
Mark Smith, deputy superintendent, said the human resources department received nearly 35 requests from teachers and “a vast majority were accommodated.”
He said the issue is having enough teachers available for each in-person section and each virtual section, and based on student enrollment in those sections, the number of teachers required could vary.
Smith said some teachers may qualify for family medical leave or disability if they don’t want to teach in-person.
“I just don’t want us to forget who we rely on, and their fears are real,” said Board President Teresa Ford.