by ALEXANDRA RETTER
After deliberating over whether Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) should start the school year with kindergarten through sixth grade students learning in-person and seventh through 12th grade students learning in-person and at home, per state guidance — and considering whether to instead begin the school year with all students learning in-person and at home, as is also allowed by the state — the WAPS Board ultimately did not agree to start the school year with either learning model at its meeting Thursday; rather, it decided to continue its meeting next Wednesday so further conversation could take place.
Some support existed among board members for putting a hybrid learning model in place for all students at the beginning of the school year. Hybrid learning in WAPS would include students being divided into Group A and Group B. Students would be split up based on their families so students from the same family would not have to go to school in-person on different days of the week. On Mondays and Tuesdays, Group A would learn in-person, and Group B would take part in distance learning. On Wednesdays, all students would participate in distance learning while school buildings receive extra cleaning. Group B would learn in-person and Group A would take part in distance learning on Thursdays and Fridays.
Based on state guidance and current Winona County COVID-19 case numbers, it would be possible for WAPS to begin the school year with students in kindergarten through sixth grade, as well as those in early childhood programs, attending class entirely in-person. Students in seventh through 12th grade would continue their education through a hybrid model of in-person and distance learning. Parents of any age student would be able to elect to have their students participate in distance learning. However, districts may choose to implement a learning model with more health and safety precautions, so long as they alert the state within a day of doing so.
In a split vote, the board approved an amendment to put hybrid learning in place for all students. The motion to which the amendment was attached later failed in a tied vote with board member Karl Sonneman abstaining from voting, so the motion failed.
Board member Allison Quam noted that she wished for the plan outlining how in-person learning would occur at the elementary level to include more restrictions. “And I say this as a parent who is going to have two kids at the elementary level with no daycare,” Quam said. “So if my kids aren’t in school, then I am not working, or my husband is not working. So this is personal for me. But I personally don’t feel comfortable sending my kids every day for six hours a day to school knowing … when many people in the community aren’t following the rules” about COVID health and safety precautions such as wearing a mask and social distancing.
Superintendent Annette Freiheit shared that hybrid learning for all students would require providing additional child care for younger students when they are not learning in-person and decreasing transportation capacity, as state guidance requires busing capacity to be at 50 percent when districts are in a hybrid model. “That will cause a staffing issue, because we just don’t have all of our staff to be able to do that,” Freiheit said of providing more child care.
“It would actually, we would have to look at staffing very differently,” Freiheit continued later. “And we may have to consider more staff, just because we will have child care that could be an option. So we could reassign some staff to be able to do that.”
Several weeks will pass between now and the start of school, Sonneman noted, and the hybrid model plans could continue to be fine-tuned by district staff members in that time.
“We could find ourselves in the middle of September or in October seeing a surge of cases in Winona County that push us over the 20 per 10,000 limit, and we’d have to make that change within a week or two,” Sonneman shared regarding state guidance requiring schools move to hybrid learning for all students if a county has 20 to 29 cases per 10,000 residents in a two-week period. “And that implies you’ve already planned out how you would do, in this case, hybrid learning in the elementaries,” Sonneman continued.
Several board members expressed an interest in receiving more information about the planning that district staff members are completing and having additional time to make a decision on which learning model to approve for implementation at the beginning of the school year. Board member Jim Schul stated that prior to the meeting, it had not been clear board members would be voting to approve an initial learning model for the upcoming school year.
“It said ‘briefing item’ on the agenda. I had community members say, ‘Big day tonight.’ I said, ‘No, it’s not. We’re getting an update,’” Schul said. “… When I saw this two hours before our meeting, I knew we were going to have this moment. So I don’t personally like to be put in a position where I just find out about what we’re going to do two hours before the meeting in such a weighty situation.”
Sonneman, who abstained from voting on a learning model with which to start the school year, shared that he wanted to delay making a choice on a plan to implement for the time being until the board receives further details about the back-to-school plans district staff members are developing. “And that was largely driving the reason I abstained … If we had to make a decision … I would support it, but I don’t think we should be making that decision at this point in time,” Sonneman explained.
Board members acknowledged that while creating plans is difficult, district staff members and families would like to know what finalized school reopening plans entail sooner rather than later so they can start to figure out their direction for the upcoming school year.
“If the board does not make some determination, and we’re waiting until our next board meeting, I think that puts the superintendent and … directors and our teachers and families at a place of unknown answers, and I think they deserve some answers,” board chair Nancy Denzer noted.
Denzer asked what kind of information would help board members make a decision on which model to implement at the beginning of the school year. Quam said she wanted to know more about how teachers will teach in-person and distance learning classes, how safe Washington-Kosciusko and Jefferson Elementary schools are with having no central dehumidification or central air conditioning and how high the coronavirus transmission rate is between adults and children. She added that she would like for all students to be able to take part in distance learning, as she feels that educational model is the safest route to take at this time, but she recognizes that supports for families which would allow them to have their children participate in distance learning are difficult to find.
“But unfortunately, we don’t have a system that takes care of people. We don’t have employers in the community that are offering child care for all of their employees, for example. We don’t have that kind of system,” Quam noted. “And so we’re put into this situation because we don’t have a system that takes care of people. I don’t believe the right decision is to put the elementary students in the school every day. I also don’t want to risk our staff, putting them in the building every single day.”
The board will continue its meeting on Wednesday, August 12, at 6 p.m. The meeting may be viewed at https://winonak12mnus.finalsite.com/district/school-board/live-stream.