Mount Horeb School Board moves nearly all classes online

Board votes 4-3 to scuttle "hybrid" plan for the fall

In a tense and emotional meeting Monday night, the Mount Horeb Area Board of Education voted 4-3 to implement what is called a “Virtual-Plus” model in the fall, meaning nearly all students will learn virtually from home. Some students with special needs will still be allowed in the buildings, but the split vote scuttled previous plans to allow most students to attend classes in person two days per week.

The meeting, which was held virtually, attracted so many participants on Google - 250 - that some parents and educators found they could not take part in the meeting. The board voted following a series of comments that expressed the vexing and myriad ways the COVID-19 pandemic has divided people and added to financial, mental health and public safety concerns.

At the heart of the issue was whether or not it would be safe or beneficial for students and teachers to resume in-person education. School board members were measured in their discussion, but several were visibly distraught by the weight of the decision resting on them in a time when parents and children are scrambling to cobble together some sense of normalcy while the COVID-19 pandemic drags on into yet another season. 

As the vote took place near the end of the meeting, school board member Kimberly Sailor held her hand to her head. A moment earlier, school board member Jessica Arrigoni stated: “Whatever we decide is going to impose hardships on families or teachers.”

Citizens left nearly 300 written comments using a chat feature during the meeting. One, Michael Crook, wrote simply: “This is literally a no-win situation.”

School nurse Pam Schaal, who briefed the board on current public health planning, stated: “It’s kind of a double-edged sword: You get to decide, but you have to decide.”

Kristina Maurer, a fourth grade teacher, said after the vote that she understood parents’ frustration with the rapid changes taking place. “All teachers, all teachers are going to do everything they can to educate your kids,” she said.

The majority of families in the district - 70 percent - had indicated in a recent required registration that they favored in-person school in the fall. The majority of teachers, in a separate poll conducted by the teachers’ union, indicated they were not comfortable returning to in-person classes.

Several people also spoke directly to the school board prior to the vote. There was little consensus.

Nicole Kalscheur, a nurse with three children in the district, said it would be safe to return to class in person with the proper precautions. She said she understands how daunting the virus is, but added that she and her coworkers, who work in a high risk environment, have adapted.

“But we’re okay,” she stated.

Kalscheur added that returning to school “is going to be scary” now or in several months.

“Our kids need their educators and peers,” she continued, adding: I’m here to tell you it gets easier.”

“Children are the most adaptable population of them all,” she said.

“[Returning to in-person class] is safe and it is the healthiest option,” Kalscheur said.

Nicole Schroeder spoke about trauma-informed care and expressed doubts that young children, forced to wear masks and keep physically distant from one another, would be able to receive the help and support they needed in school.

“We are in a crisis and we don’t have the data to navigate it,” Schroeder said. She said public health protocols might prevent warmth from a smile, or a touch, and the classroom experience might “be one of tension … and anxiety.”

Speaking on behalf of the teachers’ union, Erin Treder said 166 out of 190 educators recently filled out a survey with only a two-day turnaround.

Nearly 58 percent indicated they were not comfortable returning to the buildings, while 30 percent said they were. An estimated 30 teachers suggested they might take paid federal leave dollars and choose not to return to the classroom.

Nearly 84 percent indicated they favor an all virtual school model for the fall.

“Many staff members do not feel safe returning to school,” said union president Steve Austin.

Austin called COVID-19 “a life ending disease” and said any deaths caused by classes would be “an entirely avoidable tragedy.”

Ben Howe said he had favored returning to brick-and-mortar classes, but added that he recently changed his mind because he believes an all virtual fall could help the district get back to full, in-person schooling faster in the end.

Nancy Berkas, a veteran teacher, said Zoom and other virtual learning tools can be used to great effect. “I fear for the children of Mount Horeb [if they return to class],” she said.

Dane County is home to just over half a million people. To date, there have been 34 confirmed COVID-19 deaths and 272 hospitalizations from the virus. As of Monday’s meeting, there had been 3,863 posotive tests.

In addition to concerns about public health, the school board also grappled with logistical questions. At the end of last week, 70 percent of local families indicated to the district they planned to send their children back to in-person classes. That meant an estimated 517 of them would require bussing, which superintendent Steve Salerno said might not be possible.

“I’m not certain I can get 517 kids moved in our district,” he stated.

School board member Jessica Arrigoni pointed out that moving to all virtual schooling could make it difficult to get meals to students who experience food insecurity at home.

Several school board members said they worried about the mental health questions being raised by the virus and the isolation it is causing. School board member Leah Lipska said the “guilt” if someone dies due to in-person classes could be very real for students.

In the end, Lipska made a motion to switch to an all virtual model for at least the first semester. Sailor asked her to amend the motion to include some, limited in-person instruction for certain special needs students.

Lipska, Sailor, Arrigoni and Jeff Hanna voted in the majority, in favor of making the change to virtual classes, changing course from a hybrid model the district had previously favored.

Rod Hise, Diana Rothamer and Dani Michels voted to stick with the prior plan to offer either all-virtual or part-time in-person classes, and let parents decide which to use. Michels noted that switching to all virtual classes was in contrast to the majority of feedback the district had received from parents. 



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