By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Options are discussed as pandemic worsens
North Crawford School District
North Crawford

NORTH CRAWFORD - With more than 80 participants at their virtual special meeting on Thursday, Nov. 19, the North Crawford School Board voted to move to all-virtual instruction for two weeks following the Thanksgiving holiday. In addition, no consensus was reached about changing the start date for winter sports, so the seasons will proceed as scheduled.

School board president Mary Kuhn weighed in just before the vote to move students to all-virtual instruction for two weeks after the Thanksgiving break was taken.

“I prefer to just vote on the two weeks all-virtual following Thanksgiving for now, and wait to make a decision about what model we choose for instruction following Christmas,” Kuhn said. “This really comes down to the community, and how they choose to behave – if they want their kids in school, they’re going to have to do their part.”

Situation overview

Superintendent Brandon Munson had begun the discussion with a presentation going over the results of staff and student surveys, infection metrics and trends in the county, what other districts in the area are doing, and the basic three options that the board could choose between.

“In a survey of staff, with 66 responding, 40 percent (26) preferred to maintain the current hybrid model; 51 percent (33) preferred some form of full-virtual; and nine percent (6) responded ‘other’,” Munson explained. “Our staff is proud of the success that we have had with having students together in the building, but they are worried about the numbers of infections in our community, and that families will gather together for deer hunting and Thanksgiving celebrations.”

Munson said that among the 51 percent (33) teachers that supported full-virtual instruction, the vote broke down as follows:

• 14 supported full-virtual for middle school/high school students through Thanksgiving break, returning to hybrid instruction on Monday, Nov. 30

• eight supported all students going full-virtual through January 15, returning to hybrid instruction on Monday, Jan. 18

• seven supported middle school/high school students going full-virtual through January 15, returning to hybrid model instruction on Monday, Jan. 18

• four supported the full district going full-virtual through the Thanksgiving break, returning to hybrid model instruction on Monday, Nov. 30

“Morale is suffering under these tough working conditions – not just at North Crawford, but everywhere,” Munson said. “Our staff has been doing a stellar job under very trying conditions.”

In addition, Munson reported that 145 students, 124 currently in the hybrid instruction model and 19 currently full virtual through APEX, had participated in the student survey as follows:

• 39 percent (56) would prefer face-to-face learning

• 33 percent (47) would prefer to stay in the hybrid instruction model

• 28 percent (40) would prefer to be full-virtual

Munson pointed out that the trend in the community in Crawford County was an increasing percentage of positive tests, with a slight downtick on Wednesday. On November 12, the seven-day average of positive tests was 20 percent. The percentage had increased to 25.86 on Monday, Nov. 16, and was at 22.71 percent on Wednesday, Nov. 18. The total number of cases in the county as of Thursday, Nov. 19 was 793, up 30 from Wednesday.

Bucking the trend

North Crawford, Munson explained, seems to be bucking the trend seen in the community. As of Thursday, Nov. 19, the district has seen one staff member and 22 students excluded. These exclusions have been in 10 families, with 14 in the elementary, and four each in the middle school and high school. There is currently zero positive cases in the school. To date, the district has had five staff and four students test positive for COVID-19.

“Of all the districts in our area, North Crawford’s instructional model has really been the most restrictive,” Munson said. “I am proud of our staff for the flexibility they’ve displayed, and the fact that our numbers are not mirroring the county’s is a testament to the measures we’ve employed – wearing masks, social distancing, and rigorous cleaning and sanitizing.”

Munson said that the decisions made by neighboring school districts are as follows:

• Seneca will have one week of full-virtual instruction following Thanksgiving, with students returning to the hybrid model on Monday, Dec. 7

• Wauzeka will be full-virtual starting on Monday, Nov. 23, with the elementary returning to five-days-per-week in-person instruction on Monday, Jan. 4, and the middle school/high school on Monday, Jan. 11

• Kickapoo will be full-virtual until district metrics indicate conditions are favorable to return to five-days-per-week in-person instruction

• Viroqua and Westby will go full-virtual, returning to school on Monday, Dec. 7

• Boscobel will go full-virtual starting on Monday, Nov. 23, with students returning on Monday, Dec. 7, and then full-virtual again from January 4-13

• DeSoto will go full-virtual on Monday, Nov. 23, and return to school on Monday, Dec. 7 – decision pending school board approval

• Of the 31 total districts in CESA #3, 26 are ‘likely’ doing full virtual for some period of time over the ‘holiday season’

“Does totally shutting down the schools help reduce infections in the community?” Munson asked. “We’ve seen in Dane and LaCrosse counties, where the schools have been full-virtual, that the numbers of infections in the community are still growing exponentially.”

Munson said that just this week, Dr. Anthony Fauci stated that “children are safest when they’re at school.” He said it is an open question of whether the school actually encourages community spread more by not having the kids in the schools, and  he said some parents may be setting up impromptu daycare settings so they can go to work and earn a living for their families. He said the district has to balance all that out with their role in relieving the stress on the healthcare industry in our region.

Board members speak

Munson first opened the discussion up to members of the school board.

Board member Judy Powell stated that she would like to hear from the school nurse, John Powell. John Powell had this to say:

“I agree with Superintendent Munson that our school is not contributing to the rise in cases in the community,” John Powell said. “That being said, if the state continues on its current trajectory, the rate of deaths will double by Christmas.”

Powell praised the measures the district was taking in the building and said “there is no more that we can do in the building.” He said, as the numbers show, that the surrounding community is clearly not doing their part to flatten the curve, and keep schools and businesses open.

“Just yesterday, both Gundersen and Mayo announced that they are on the brink of having to ration care,” John Powell said. “Gundersen’s case load of COVID-19 patients has doubled every two weeks since September, and the state is anticipating more rises in cases after the Thanksgiving ‘superspreader’ event.”

Jim Dworschack also had praise for measures being taken by the district.

“North Crawford is doing a great job, but that said, the issue is with the microbes from the virus,” Dworschack noted. “Microbes work by the numbers, and they don’t discriminate – we already have an almost exponential rise in cases in the county, with the anticipation that the Thanksgiving ‘superspreader’ event will make things worse.”

Dworschack advocated for moving to virtual instruction. He pointed out that in the state of New York, schools are closed when they reach 2.5 percent of the community with infections, and at three percent, they close the bars.

“Wisconsin is right now at 4.5 percent,” Dworschack pointed out. “We are under an assault from microbes.”

Ed Heisz advocated for keeping the kids in school because it might be the safest spot for them.

“If this is the safest spot, then why put the kids out there in the community,” Heisz asked. “They learn more in the building, and I think we should wait to transition to full virtual until we feel that our systems are failing.”

As an alternative to full virtual instruction, Heisz proposed simply closing the school and then extending the school year into the summer.

Jim Dworschack took issue with Heisz’s recommendation that the district wait to see their systems failing.

“When you’re driving a car, you don’t wait to take evasive action until you have a collision,” Dworschack said. “You take evasive action to prevent a collision, and the district has staff that are more vulnerable to the more serious effects of the virus.”

Mary Kuhn stated that she had been thinking about the issue a lot.

“According to the New York health experts, school is the safest place for the children,” Kuhn said. “I don’t think that we will help to stop the spread by sending the kids home – the kids are not the spreaders.”

Kuhn said she is very concerned about Thanksgiving.

“But my question is why should we punish the kids because the adults can’t be responsible,” Kuhn asked. “I have a hard time with punishing the kids.”

Terry O’Donnell agreed with Mary Kuhn. He said that many students are unable to participate in education in a virtual format, and the result is that many are falling further and further behind.

“Most of our families are doing a really good job, but we have some that continue to say the COVID-19 pandemic is a hoax,” school nurse John Powell said. “The decision about what to do following Thanksgiving is really a question about our philosophy about the upcoming superspreader event – can we really send them out there, and then bring them right back? I am very concerned about the capacities of our healthcare staff and facilities.”

Judy Powell shared John Powell’s concerns.

“I am very fearful for the health and safety of our healthcare system and our community at large,” Judy Powell said. “Our local healthcare system is on the verge of collapse, and our community needs to work together to get our numbers down. I think about the scenario where we could have an accident with one of our buses, with students injured – what if there was no available space in our hospitals?”

Judy Powell stated that the problem is “bigger than just North Crawford” and that adults in the community need to do their part to help flatten the curve. She advocated for the district to move to full virtual instruction, but to make the experience more interactive and more like a classroom setting.

Mary Kuhn stated that she was worried about the implications of going to full virtual for the families in the district.

“We have a high percentage of families living in poverty in our district, and the parents have to go to work and earn a living,” Kuhn said. “What does our district suggest to those parents if they can’t go to work – skimp on groceries, don’t pay their rent? Many of these families are single-parent families.”

Tanya Forkash thanked John Powell for sharing his concerns, and all he has done to help keep students and staff in the district safe.

“This decision is so hard for everybody,” Forkash said. “I worry about the Thanksgiving superspreader event, and that it could drastically change our little bubble. Gundersen is pleading with people to limit the number of people at Thanksgiving celebrations – this is dire, this is serious – adults in our community need to step up. I’d like to hear from staff on the issue – either way, this decision is very difficult.”

Staff and public

Kelly Mormann (parent): “I have concerns about student’s mental and emotional health, and the impact this will have on the district’s juniors and seniors who are preparing to be adults. I understand the crisis in healthcare, but when kids aren’t in school, then they may be doing things besides pursuing an education, such as going to work.”

Erika Wilson (teacher): “I am a teacher at the district, and I believe that school is the safest place I go. On the other hand, I think everyone here and also at other districts is very worried about what could happen after Thanksgiving. If people in the community don’t do their part, then teachers and students will have to deal with the consequences of their decisions, potentially in our classrooms.”

Julie Kruizenga (teacher): “Thanks Erika – I wanted to say the same thing as you did. I too am very worried about the Thanksgiving supersreader event – sometimes we have to do what doesn’t seem comfortable or right for the greater good.”

Kathleen Cade (parent): “I would like to understand what effect it would have on the school calendar if you were to close the school from Thanksgiving through January 18. Can students transfer to full virtual sooner than at the semester?”

Brandon Munson: “The school calendar is always flexible, but changes require school board approval. If families want to not send students to school for a time, the district is always flexible.”

Linda Dworschack (teacher): “I had an experience with the district’s current full virtual model when part of the middle school had to quarantine, and it was a good experience. If we keep bringing the kids to school, what lesson are we teaching the kids – I think we need to teach them that they have to think of the greater good, and play their part in keeping their family and their community safe.”

Jeff Lehman (parent): “In my home, I have gotten rid of the internet. As a result, my kids read a lot. My stance is that I won’t allow school to cross my doorstep, and I won’t alter my stance on having internet in my home. Going full virtual is not fair, and it is not working. The hybrid model has worked. Our family is not wealthy, and so if my kids are to attend college, scholarships will be important. I am concerned that if their learning is negatively impacted by going full virtual, their ability to secure scholarships could be negatively impacted.”

Tanya Miller (teacher): “I teach in the middle school, and I personally like the plan adopted by the Boscobel School District. The district needs to be flexible. The virus can quickly eliminate staff, and put kids in crisis mode – it’s better to have a plan, and to prepare the kids for it.”

Tina Allbaugh (parent): “For teachers who are not leaning towards the full virtual option, what is your thought process?”

Chris Wettstein (teacher): “I think the kids should remain at school. This has been going on for months – 30-40 students walk into the building every day with COVID. This means our measures are working. It won’t get any better if we send the kids home – I go into the Marketplace and see students without masks. In full virtual, 40 percent more kids will get COVID.”

Timothy Bromeland (parent): “I agree with Mr. Wettstein. If we start with full virtual, I don’t believe that we will get kids back in the building until February or March. I like the idea of quarantine after the holidays, but we need to set the dates in stone.”

Jackie Petitt (paraprofessional): “I have had to quarantine two times, personally. I think that staff are concerned in both directions, and if staff are out and we can’t get substitutes, that could prove to be a big issue.”

Decision made

Motion: The school will transition to two weeks of all-virtual learning following the Thanksgiving break, with students returning to the hybrid instructional model on Monday, December 14.

The motion made by Judy Powell and seconded by Mary Kuhn. The vote was unanimous, except Jim Dworschack and Ed Heisz voted no.

Winter athletics

The board next turned its attention to how winter athletics would be handled during the two week quarantine period following Thanksgiving.

Mary Kuhn: “I would like to see athletes be able to participate in winter athletics during the two weeks quarantine following Thanksgiving, but ensure that they only associate with their teams.”

Ed Heisz: “I agree with Mary Kuhn, but I’m worried that by allowing athletics during the two weeks we are sending a mixed message – are we telling the community that athletics are more important than school? Maybe we could push back the start of athletics by one week.”

Jim Dworschack: “I agree with Ed Heisz about the mixed message.”

Brandon Munson: “If we were to cancel winter athletics during the two-week period, it would probably just involve pushing back the start and possibly rescheduling a few games. All other schools in the conference are moving to virtual instruction following Thanksgiving, but continuing with athletics on schedule.”

Athletics decision

Motion One: Delay the start of winter athletics one week, with the season beginning on Monday, Dec. 7

The motion was made by Terry O’Donnell, and seconded by Ed Heisz. The motion failed, with Jim Dworschack, Tanya Forkash and Judy Powell voting no.

Motion Two: Delay the start of winter athletics until Monday, Dec. 14, when students return to the hybrid instructional model.

The motion was made by Jim Dworschack, and seconded by Tanya Forkash. The motion failed, with Mary Kuhn, Terry O'Donnell, and Ed Heisz voting no.

The final decision was made by default, that winter athletics will move forward as originally scheduled.

Staff choice

Brandon Munson said that among the staff there was a mix of preferences regarding if they would work in the building or from home during full virtual instruction.

“Some staff prefer to be in the building because they have all their materials in their classrooms or their internet connection at home is inadequate,” Munson said. “Other staff prefer the option of working from home.”

Munson advocated that staff be allowed to select the option that works best for them during the full virtual period. He said that work would be found for the support staff in the building, while the students are at home.

“If we’re going to make work for the support staff, then I think we should do it for the bus drivers too,” Mary Kuhn said.

Tanya Forkash advocated for teachers to be able to choose to work either remotely or in the building during the full virtual period.

“Why make the teachers come into the building if they don’t need to,” Tanya Forkash asked. “If we trust them with our children, why not trust them with being able to choose.”

Judy Powell seemed concerned with the inconsistencies in the board’s approach to the period following Thanksgiving.

“I think we need to back this decision-making up – if we’re going to allow the children to participate in athletics, then why aren’t we resuming the hybrid model of instruction after Thanksgiving,” Powell asked. “This is a poor message we are sending to the kids, families and community.”

Ed Heisz: “I think we should let the teacher’s choose, and just pay the support staff, bus drivers, and foodservice staff during the two week period.”

Motion: Staff will be empowered to decide whether to work from home or from the school building during the two weeks of virtual instruction following Thanksgiving. Work will be found for support staff members, and bus drivers and foodservice staff will be paid during this time.

The motion was made by Ed Heisz, seconded by Mary Kuhn, and carried unanimously.