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De Pere grades 7-12 returning full-time, five days a week Feb. 15

By Lee Reinsch

DE PERE – Students in grades 7-12 in the De Pere school district will return to in-person school five days a week, starting Monday, Feb. 15.

The school board voted 5-2 Monday, Feb. 1, for the measure, after months of discussion on how to return to full-time school safely.

Students who prefer to attend face-to-face classes virtually can do so. They may also have the option of attending De Pere Virtual Learning Academy, depending on availability.

Full-time, in-person students, will be wearing masks while in school.

Hanging around in hallways will be discouraged, as will crowding around lunch tables, although up to six will be seated per table at the middle school because of space, said Principal Adam Kraemer.

Students at the high school will eat in the atrium and gym as well as the lunchroom, said Principal Nick Joseph.

Contact-tracing protocols are still being solidified, and camera footage might need to be reviewed.

Most in-person extracurriculars won’t resume, as buildings need to be empty at night for cleaning.

Students will be reminded to keep at least 6 feet away from teachers.

Space concerns will prevent desks from being placed at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommended 6-foot distance apart.

This would have displaced some 200 students per hour to other areas of the school for remote learning.

“That (number) was untenable,” said Superintendent Ben Villarruel.

A more acceptable number – 50 or fewer – will be achieved by placing desks 4 feet apart.

That’s one reason board member Bob Mathews voted “no.”

“I’m concerned about social distancing, and I understand that if it weren’t for the displacement, it would be the approach of the administration,” Mathews said. “But I believe it’s important that we maintain that 6 feet social distance; that’s the direction from the CDC and the basis on which we’ve made our decisions as a board from the beginning.”

Rob Dernbach of the De Pere Education Association also questioned the 4-foot decision.

He urged the board to give blended learning (two days a week in-person) more time, as it’s improved since starting last month, and it minimized outbreaks because only half the student body attended in-person at a time.

“The most recent CDC recommendations, based on studies of various school districts around the country, including rural Wisconsin, indicate that schools should definitely be open so long as mitigation strategies are in place,” Dernbach said in a letter read aloud at the meeting.

Social distancing and a cohort model should be the two cornerstones of those mitigation strategies, he said.

“If we lose social distancing, the one student who might test positive because of a family exposure will now turn into four or more students missing in-person instruction,” Dernbach’s letter said.

He said more students pass through upper-grade teachers’ classrooms than through elementary-school teachers’ classrooms, which are smaller and self-contained.

Dernbach said starting five days a week in April – at the start of the fourth quarter – would give more teachers a chance to get vaccinated and prepare for the shift in teaching modes.

“The prospect of adding additional students in combination with no vaccination adds (another) layer of stress,” he said in his letter.

Citing vaccinations, board member Jeff Mirkes, too, asked if the start date could at least be moved back.

“If not everyone was vaccinated by that point, they might at least have an appointment,” he said.

Teachers were notified they would be eligible for vaccinations starting March 1, although that date could be moved back depending on the state supply of vaccines.

Mirkes, who spoke out for science throughout the months of debate, was the other “no” vote.

“What we’re asking our teachers to do (subject themselves to dozens of students in close quarters) is more than what many of us are asked to do,” Mirkes said.

He asked the board to consider delaying the start date to March 1.

Villarruel said he was satisfied with a start date of Feb. 15 and 14-day COVID positivity numbers are “trending down.”

Brown County’s CDC burden rate for Brown County as of Monday was 392 positive cases per 100,000 people over 14 days.

The CDC categorizes anything over 200 as having the highest risk of transmission in schools.

Board President David Youngquist thanked faculty, administration and parents for their patience.

He said he wants feedback once school starts, and he might be open to considering changes if things don’t work out.

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