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Little progress made getting Green Bay kids back in school

By Heather Graves

GREEN BAY – It’s been nearly 10 months since a majority of Green Bay students have seen the inside of a classroom – instead learning virtually because of COVID-19.

Despite discussing it at nearly every meeting since last March, the school board has made little progress on getting students back onsite.

“There are seven of you affecting 20,000 students, that is a huge responsibility,” said parent Lydia Lowery. “No one is perfect, no one is looking for perfect. But step up. Put your biases aside. There is enough information 10 months out to know that this virtual learning is failing the students.”

The discussion continued at the Monday, Jan. 11, meeting, and while the question of when a return will happen remains foggy, who will return once the gating criteria are met received more clarification.

After feedback regarding the blended middle and high school plan to bring back sixth and ninth grades first, and progress to the remaining secondary grades, the board approved a rotation which brings all students in grades 6-12 back onsite at least one day a week.

This is only after Brown County meets the gating criteria of 250 positive cases per 100,000 people over a two-week period.

Trustee Andrew Becker, who proposed the change last month, said this gives all students the opportunity to progress toward some in-person instruction.

Superintendent Steve Murley said he supports the board’s direction, but details of the original plan might have gotten lost in the shuffle.

“When we brought the plan forward initially, there was a separate gate for elementary and a separate gate for secondary,” Murley said. “And after advocacy at the building level, the plan was adjusted to create earlier entry for sixth-graders and ninth grade. I know much of the earlier community discussion back in December was focused on a perception that we were delaying the return of the seventh, eighth and 10th through 12th graders, and in reality the planning group had accelerated the entry of the sixth and ninth graders. And I understand that got lost in the shuffle, but I just want to make sure that people understand that that was the intentionality of planning – not delaying the return of one group, but accelerating the return of individuals.”

The rotation plan passed in a 5-2 vote with Trustees Rhonda Sitnikau and Laura McCoy opposed.

Sitnikau said she voted “no” because it doesn’t go far enough.

“The blended model, Andrew makes a motion, we vote on it, great, but it doesn’t change anything for anyone in the next few weeks, at all,” she said. “I’m concerned about all of our students who are struggling, all of our families that are struggling. I have faith that we can find something better.”

According to the results of a recent parent survey on learning preferences, more than 60 percent of families chose in-person learning.

Murley said his team will work to put together an operational plan for each building, as preference numbers and teacher availability differ between schools.

“The planning isn’t the issue, it is the implementation,” Murley said. “It’s a bit of a matchmaking process.”

Contentious topic

The topic continues to generate interest, as once again more than 15 parents spoke during the meeting, and board members and administration continue to receive communication outside of meetings.

“I am heartbroken watching (my daughter) struggle and not being able to help,” said parent Alicia Van Straten. “How do you go to bed each night knowing that your decisions are affecting people like this? We need your help, your leadership, your guidance to move past your fears of the what ifs. Even if it’s baby steps – get these kids back in school. You are in a position to change lives, make a difference. Be the leaders we need to be.”

McCoy asked the board to not forget the feedback from outside of meetings.

“I want to remind the people on the board here that for all the people we have heard from that want to get kids back into school like right now, we’ve heard from at least as many – through emails, phone calls – that are deeply concerned about changing this gating criteria and want to stay exactly the way it is, or lower it,” McCoy said.

Gating criteria change?

Sitnikau made a motion to adjust the district’s trigger to move between off-site learning and blended models for grades 3K Head Start through second grade from 250 to 350 cases testing positive for COVID-19 per 100,000 Brown County residents over a two-week period.

“To have another meeting, basically, where we don’t come out of it with something where we move the needle, I think will be a huge mistake for many reasons,” Sitnikau said.

Eric Vanden Heuvel, board president, said he is concerned about how quickly school operations, like food service, could collapse if the board opens schools when community spread is high.

“The reality is if somebody is simply exposed to the virus they have to quarantine for I think it’s 10 days now,” Vanden Heuvel said. “If somebody gets the virus, they could be out for, at minimum, 10 days. It could be longer than that depending on their symptoms. And when I think about the number of people that are required to operate our school district – over 4,000 employees – I’m concerned when the burden rate is high, that the likelihood of our staff being exposed is also very high. And when I talk about safety in our school district, I’m not necessarily referring to the safety of the death rate of the virus. I’m talking about the number of adults it takes to run a school district of 20,000.”

No vote was taken on the motion. Instead trustees voted unanimously to postpone a vote until a special meeting prior to the board’s work session Jan 25, to give the administration time to research.

Vanden Heuvel said he is OK with waiting to see how things go for other recently-reopened districts.

“As I sit here today, I’m willing to watch and wait and see what happens for a week or two,” he said. “Have they been successful, or in three weeks are they going to shut down again?”

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