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De Pere’s return to in-person learning going well

By Lee Reinsch

DE PERE – Face-to-face, in-person learning for students in all grades has been happening for just over a month, and educators said at the March 15, school board meeting it’s been going fairly well.

High school and middle school educators from the De Pere school district updated the school board on the return to in-person classes, where students in middle and high school went back full-time Feb. 15.

They said some students need extra reminders to put on face masks, and absences are up several times the average.

But, it’s been easier than previously thought to maintain at least 4 feet social distancing, even at lunch, and the number of students needing to be displaced to other parts of the school to maintain adequate spacing has been kept to a minimum.

High School Principal Nick Joseph said about 17 percent of the high school student body was absent the first two weeks of March.

“About 7 percent of that is quarantines and 10 percent is your typical absences,” he said.

The prior two years, the average absence rate was 5 percent.

“It’s up quite a bit, but that’s fine, we’re good with that, based on our advice if you’re not feeling well, stay home,”

Joseph said, adding that in prior years, many students came to school despite being ill.

“But we’ve really been clear about (the message to) please stay home, so we can really try and limit that quarantine,” he said.

It hasn’t been necessary to displace students to other parts of the high school building for space reasons – something Board President David Youngquist feared would make kids feel ostracized – thanks to the number of absences, along with those participating in the virtual learning academy and those doing real-time distance learning.

“I had a lot of heartburn over the displacement, so it’s very good to hear that some of the issues we tried to minimize aren’t occurring,” Youngquist said. “I think that is a lot of credit to everyone, their planning and discernment on all of this, so thank you.”

Lunch at the high school is being held in the gym, with a capacity of 200 students, but thanks to the open-campus lunch policy for ninth through 12th grade, only about 50 students are eating at school.

“On average, about 160 students leave for lunch,” Joseph said.

Middle School Principal Adam Kraemer reported a 16-17 percent absence rate the last two weeks.

The same two weeks last year the middle school averaged 4-5 percent of the school out, he said.

Superintendent Ben Villarruel said 10 teachers and about 130 students were in quarantine as of this week.

Contact tracing in classes that don’t have a fixed seating chart would have presented a problem without some modern ingenuity, and one staff member came up with the answer.

District data and assessment specialist Joseph Connelly told the board how QR codes – those little black and white squares filled with dozens of more tiny squares – are helping teachers keep a handle on things.

“It’s a solution to a logistical problem that was kind of imminent,” Connelly said.

QR codes have been assigned to each desk.

When students sign in with their Chromebooks, they scan the desk’s QR code.

“It shouldn’t take a student more than 10 or 15 seconds,” Connelly said.

With a few keystrokes, it goes to a directory which keeps track of which Chromebook owner sat where and when, and who else sat nearby within a certain time frame.

In the event of an outbreak, the list of who should be alerted can easily be generated.

A seating chart might do the same function, but fixed seating would detract from students’ ability to effectively space when other students are absent, Connelly said.

“If the room is only half present on a given day because of quarantines, you definitely want those students spreading out to the maximum extent possible,” he said. “We don’t want to tell students they need to be clustered together over here because that’s what the seating chart says. We want the students to spread out, but we need to know where they are. This allows us to do that, hopefully, in an efficient manner.”

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