The Kimberly Area School District Board of Education was presented with the district’s instructional plan for 2020-21 at its regular meeting Monday evening.
The plan consists of two pieces – an online option and an in-person re-entry plan, essentially giving parents two choices of how to educate their kids with the district this coming school year.
The first plan presented to the board was the online option. When the district sent out surveys to parents earlier this summer, 70 percent responded that they wanted their children to return to school in-person, while only five percent said they wanted an online-only option. Twenty-five percent were unsure at the time. (Nearly 4,000 parents answered, or almost 75 percent of the district). However, Assistant Superintendent Holly Prast said since the survey closed, more parents have been calling the district asking about an online option.
Both Prast and Superintendent Bob Mayfield stressed to the board that the online option for 2020-21 is nothing like the “online” version parents saw last spring. The district has been preparing for online-only school since the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools last March, giving leaders a five-month head start on strategies. The district has also been working for more than a year on slowly implementing online options for certain classes at the high school with the goal of being able to provide online options in the future, giving Kimberly further preparation into the virtual-school world.
The district will use online curriculum from multiple areas that is research based and has proven to be successful for thousands of students who already learn virtually. Since the district will be using online platforms with already-developed curriculum, teachers will be allowed to focus on students’ individual needs throughout the year rather than trying to adapt their in-school curriculum to online learning, as they were forced to do last spring.
The district’s goal has been to develop a program that would be most appropriate for the online-learning environment, while developing a learning plan for each level and developing structure and supports for each level. Three teams have been working on this option, one at the 4K/5K level, one for grades 1-5 and one for grades 6-12. Virtual options will be modified to fit each grade.
4K/5K students would use a program called Seesaw and grades 1-12 would use Genius or Buzz, both programs provided by the Wisconsin eSchool Network (WEN), which has been working for more than 15 years on virtual-specific curriculum. The platforms will provide consistency and ease of use for families, ready-made curriculum that can be easily modified and data to provide administrative monitoring and support for all students.
Another question in the district’s survey to parents surrounded priorities for returning to school. Ninety percent of parents responded that academic progress was the most desired priority, followed by the safety of students at 81 percent. Following those guidelines, the district’s first pillar of online learning was for the academic work to be as equally rigorous as in-person learning with equally high expectations.
All curriculum will be aligned to state standards and will have equivalent rigor to in-person classes. The digital content is built specifically for the online environment and has been vetted by WEN as well as the district.
Instruction-wise, the online option will include both asynchronous and synchronous learning, meaning students will participate in a mixture of online classes with a teacher and virtual learning at their own pace. Attendance will be expected and monitored by the district – as will teacher performance - and grades will be given as regularly as they would be during in-person learning. State, district and classroom assessments will also be given.
Expectations are set specific to each grade level for live learning sessions, while parents will still have flexibility to complete assignments at different times as needed. The district stated students will be given access to devices as well as device support and user support in terms of how to use the online platforms.
Students’ social and emotional needs will be addressed as much as possible during virtual learning as well. There will be regular live, online sessions with teachers and classmates in addition to other specific social opportunities, students will still be able to participate in extra-curriculars and regular counselor contact will be available as needed.
Teachers will receive regular coaching by online coordinators and there will be staff meetings and trainings on a consistent basis throughout the school year. They will be monitored and evaluated on effectiveness.
“It’s important to remember this is not what happened last spring. This is something new. It’s better and it’s taking the social end of it, educational end of it, and putting it all together,” Board Vice President Brad Siebers said. “I think we’re doing a fantastic job for our community and for our students.”
The online model would cost the district an additional $600,000.
The board was then presented with the details of the district’s in-person option for 2020-21. The district attempted to make sense all of the recommendations that have been made for schools through the Department of Public Instruction (DPI), Center for Disease Control (CDC), Wisconsin Economic Development Coropration (WEDC) and the Department of Health Services (DHS). The district also strongly took into account the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which prioritizes students’ social and emotional well-being in addition to physical health and safety.
As an example of the difficulty the district has in trying to adhere to recommendations from multiple groups across the country and the state with no national directives from the federal government, the board was presented with a scenario in which the district followed the DPI recommendations. That would put class sizes at 10:1 and the district would have to somehow add 12 to 15 classrooms per grade and double staffing, costing an additional $18 million; bussing would require students in every other seat, which would add 10-15 buses or double (or even triple) routes, costing an additional $1-2 million (assuming Lamers Bus Lines has the vehicles and drivers to accommodate such guidelines); and lunch would be held in classrooms, requiring additional cleaning, food service and supervision.
Adhering to the DPI guidelines would cost the district more than $20 million this year.
However, Kimberly has already performed controlled openings across the district in multiple buildings since the end of May, so preparations for what in-person learning may look like have been in the works since before the end of last school year.
The district built its in-person program around three guiding safety principles: physical distancing, social grouping and risk mitigation. Principals were asked to walk through their respective buildings and look at all three principles, asking themselves where it would be challenging for students and staff to remain six feet apart, how schedules may have to change to keep students in smaller groups throughout the day and how they might best limit the spread of germs through safety and sanitation practices, including handwashing, limiting the use of shared items, the use of masks and consistent disinfecting.
The district took under consideration spreading students apart in classrooms as much as physically possible, maintaining six feet of separation as often as possible and using multiple entries and exits for drop-off and pick-up.
To help schools remain open, the board is requesting that masks be worn by both students and staff. The board retains the right to mandate facemasks should mitigation efforts require it.
Under the social grouping principle, the district is recommending grouping students by level and limiting crossover as much as possible. Students would be placed together in smaller groups by cohort in classrooms, during lunch and at recess. This would limit exposure to other students and make it easier for contact tracing purposes should students or staff be diagnosed with the virus.
Cleaning processes have changed to meet the current needs across the district as well. The entire after-school cleaning plan has been revised to reflect CDC disinfecting and cleaning guidelines. There will also be an increase in custodial staff that will be responsible for further cleaning during school hours. Those members of the staff will constantly walk the same path through schools, disinfecting high-touch and highly-vulnerable areas.
The district also plans to increase handwashing, cleaning and increase air flow in buildings, among numerous other recommendations to reduce the potential for virus spreading. Risk will be minimized as much as possible on busses and during lunch as well, although the district admitted that lunch and recess will be the most difficult times of the day to keep students in their respective groups and maintain social distancing guidelines.
The district plans to allocate additional spending for COVID-related needs, from technology and safety products to additional staffing. However, at this time there has been no talk of a budget repair bill at the state level and there likely will be no adjustments made to public education revenue until after the presidential election in November. The district may ultimately need to tap into fund balances to pay for the 2020-21 additional needs.
“We know that there have been hundreds, or even into thousands, of person-hours put in to this process knowing what we face, the challenges that we face, and that we have a solid plan in place,” Board President Montgomery Elmer said. “But at the end of the day we’re going to have to continue to look at what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, and adjust according to the law, but we’re off to as good a start as anyone else.”
There was also a discussion surrounding the ability of parents to switch from in-person to virtual learning throughout the year, or vice versa. The board and district discussed possibly allowing parents to reassess every quarter, but logistically it would be much easier for students to switch from in-person learning to virtual. Going in the opposite direction would possibly require the district to find a way to hire additional teachers mid-year if there was an influx of students into schools.
The board was also informed that there are already plans in place for intermittent closures that would ensure continuity of learning for small or large groups in the event of a short-term closure.
While other school districts in the area have been attempting to plan for a hybrid option – such as two days on, three days off or a.m. or p.m. school, for example, Kimberly could not find a realistic system for such an option.
The district also explored year-round schooling with a model of students returning to school for 90 days at a time followed by a 30-day break, alternating months to reduce class sizes. Research showed the district that it would cost anywhere from $6-7 million more for this school year in staffing needs.
The district plans to send information on both options to parents this week with a second survey being sent at the end of this month asking parents to choose one option or the other.
The board will receive a presentation from the district about staffing during the 2020-21 school year at its Aug. 10 meeting.
The board also unanimously approved a virtual school agreement with Wisconsin Rapids, an insurance collaborative agreement, received the annual notice of academic standards for the district and approved a vision services agreement.
The board also approved a number of policies upon second reading.