By LeAnn R. Ralph
COLFAX — The Colfax Board of Education has approved starting school this fall with five days per week in-person instruction at school with masks required for students and school staff to help slow the spread of COVID-19.
The plan approved by the school board also includes online options for those parents who do not want to send their students to school.
The back-to-school plan is bringing together a myriad of recommendations from a variety of sources, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the state Department of Public Instruction, the state Department of Health Services and the Dunn County Health Department, said William C. Yingst Jr., district administrator, at a special meeting of the Colfax school board August 5.
The meeting was held in the high school lobby so that Board of Education members and the audience could maintain the proper social distance of six feet recommended during the coronavirus pandemic.
While school district officials had expected a larger turn-out, only a handful of people attended the meeting.
This has been an attempt to make “a common sense reasonable plan,” Yingst said.
The school district sent out 478 parent surveys and had a 50 percent return rate, he said.
Out of those who responded, 90 percent said they are likely to send their child back to five-day a week school for the 2020-2021 school year.
Out of those who responded, 6 percent said they do not plan to send their child back to the school building during COVID-19.
The survey also discovered that 58 percent of respondents reported difficulties with online learning during the pandemic shutdown, and 41 percent reported they did not experience any problems.
Some of the problems with online learning included Internet capability, Chromebook issues, communication, varying platforms, lack of student motivation and a lack of live lessons.
After schools were closed statewide in the middle of March and students began working from home, it became apparent that there is a wide variation in the area of Internet availability and quality of the service, Yingst said.
The school district also sent out a staff survey, and the teachers said they needed more online technology training, Yingst said.
The school district has purchased 64 cameras, one for each classroom, so that when teachers are teaching a class, those students who are attending remotely from home will be able to see the classroom lesson as well, he said.
The lessons will be recorded, and the videos will be available online for those students who need to access them, Yingst said.
If the school district ends up shutting down because of increasing infection rates, or if a teacher or certain students or even an entire class has to quarantine at home, the cameras and recordings will enable school to continue, he said.
According to the back-to-school plan, Colfax will offer a remote only educational option for students in junior kindergarten to sixth grade where student instruction and curriculum will be delivered by district teachers and a virtual-only option for students in grades seven through 12 where student instruction is delivered through a DPI accredited virtual school.
One of the problems parents identified in the survey pertaining to online learning in the spring was the varying platforms used for instruction.
The curriculum will be administered through the Google Classroom remote learning platform delivered by Colfax teachers and support staff, and Classroom Dojo will be used for the lower grades, Yingst said.
Classroom Dojo is a more user-friendly platform for younger students, he said.
The back-to-school plan incorporates the best practices that have been recommended throughout the pandemic, Yingst said.
Best practices include wearing masks, social distancing, good hand hygiene and making hand sanitizer available, he said.
In a letter Yingst sent to parents, he encouraged them to practice wearing masks with their children before school starts.
As noted in the back-to-school plan, “Parent support for mask wearing will be essential to keeping our schools open.”
Some parents are choosing to keep their children at home and do remote/virtual online learning, and KT Gallagher, director of the Dunn County Health Department and the county’s health officer, has said the online learning will create a “natural density reduction,” Yingst said.
Natural density reduction means there will be fewer students in classrooms, and the smaller number of students will make social distancing easier, he said.
“We are hoping the fall will go better than the spring,” Yingst said, noting that all schools in the state were faced with the same situation of only a few days’ notice before the schools closed, leaving practically no time to prepare for teaching online.
Some school districts are setting a virus activity threshold for when they will close their schools, but Colfax is not going to set a threshold, Yingst said.
Instead, the school district will be working with Gallagher, the county public health officer, who will notify the school district if the virus activity level increases to the point where school should be closed, he said.
“There is no guarantee school can or will stay open,” Yingst said.
According to the back-to-school plan, a screening symptoms checklist will be provided for students and staff to determine if they are able to attend school.
The criteria used to exclude students and staff from school will be developed with guidance from the Dunn County Public Health.
The criteria for exclusion will include directions for when a COVID-19 test is positive, when the test is negative and when no testing is done.
Follow-up criteria for cases of COVID-19 among students and staff will be developed with guidance from the county health department.
The Colfax school district and Dunn County Public Health will be communicating with families if a student has been in close contact with a person who is positive for COVID-19.
The Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA) has scheduled girls’ golf and cross country to start on August 17 and has scheduled volleyball and football to start on September 7, Yingst noted.
But whether there will actually be fall sports is still a “wait and see situation,” he said.
The Wisconsin Department of Health Services is expected to take a “strong stance” on sports soon, Yingst said.
Even if there are sports — or concerts, plays, musicals or other events — the audiences may be limited or restricted, he said.
As the back-to-school plan notes, events will be live streamed on the School District of Colfax website at www.colfax.k12.wi.us (at the Viking TV link).
Of the parents who responded to the survey, 50 percent said they would send their children to school on the bus, while 25 percent of parents said they would drive their children to school, and 25 percent said “someone” would drive their children to school.
According to the back-to-school plan, cleaning and disinfecting protocols will be followed after student pick-up and drop-off, with special attention to high touch areas.
Bus times also may be extended to allow for more buses to be used.
Bus and family drop-off and pick-up zones may be modified to enforce separate entry and exit points when possible.
Face coverings will be required when riding the bus.
The bus drivers also will be required to wear masks, Yingst said.
Many of the bus drivers wear glasses, however, and glasses are notorious for fogging up when face masks are being worn, so the drivers will be allowed to take the mask off while they are driving but will put the masks back on when students are entering or leaving the buses, he said.
Jon Ralph, who has children attending school at Colfax and who teaches in the Eau Claire school district, asked if the school district had considered loading the bus back to front.
That is, when the students get on the bus, they go to the back and sit in family groups. By the time the bus finishes picking up students, the last ones on the bus will be sitting in the front, he said.
Loading the bus back to front would cut down on students co-mingling and having to pass each other, Ralph said.
Yingst noted there have been thousands of details discussed about starting school, but loading the buses back to front was one that had not yet been discussed and acknowledged it as an excellent idea.
The Colfax Board of Education unanimously approved the back-to-school plan.
Voting in favor of the motion were Todd Kragness, school board president, and board members Jodi Kiekhafer, Andy De Moe, Ken Bjork, Kyle Knutson, Jaclyn Ackerlund and Ken Neuburg.
The back-to-school plan is posted on the Colfax school district’s website.
The plan is good, but some of the details will likely have to change as time goes on, Kragness said.
Neuburg said he wanted to give his compliments to the administration for sending out surveys to parents and staff.