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School board rejects all-virtual in favor of hybrid model
North Crawford
North Crawford

NORTH CRAWFORD - The North Crawford School Board had students in full virtual instruction for two weeks following the Thanksgiving break. The decision was based on high case counts from community spread in the county, and the fear that if families held large in-person celebrations, there could be a post-holiday spike.

It seems that county residents can breathe a cautious sigh of relief, as growth in new cases has seemed to slow in recent weeks. For this reason, the board voted to resume their hybrid instruction model from December 14-23, and then again following the holiday break, on Monday, Jan. 4. The decisions, however, were not unanimous.

Superintendent Brandon Munson kicked off the board’s decision-making in the ‘Consideration of Return to Hybrid Learning Model and Holiday Break’ agenda item with some comments. He made clear that his comments were in no way meant to diminish the concerns of staff and parents as expressed in the public input earlier on the agenda.

“I am advocating for a return to the hybrid learning model from December 14-23, and then again on January 4, following the holiday break,” Munson said. “Not all of our kids thrive in the virtual model, and I believe that student mental health needs to be a priority for the district.”

Munson said that he thinks the district’s students need to be in the classroom, learning. He said that “we never know what will happen next,” and that if the district needs to, it can once again choose to pivot to a full virtual model. He emphasized that Dr. Anthony Fauci has gone on record as saying that schools are one of the safest places for children right now.

“It’s difficult to wear both my superintendent and my parent hats at the same time,” Munson said. “My older children have done very well in the full virtual format, but my daughter has been struggling with it, and is showing some signs of mental stress.”

School nurse John Powell shared his thoughts with the board as well.

“The data that we’ve been seeing is concerning to me,” Powell said. “November has been a record month for new cases, deaths and hospitalizations, and the health industry has been sounding the alarm about the availability of ICU beds in our region.”

Powell pointed out that in recent weeks we’ve seen a trend downward in new cases and the hospitalization rate has been cut in half. He said, however, that statewide we have continued to see a strong growth in death rates. He said that public health professionals are also very concerned about a dramatic decrease in testing levels. 

He said that it is an open question whether full virtual instruction for two weeks following Thanksgiving has resulted in a lower number of cases at the school, and that anecdotally, most families had chosen to make their Thanksgiving celebrations smaller.

“It just takes one infected person at a gathering, though, to cause an outbreak,” Powell said.

Board president Mary Kuhn had a few observations to contribute to the discussion.

“I have firsthand knowledge of the impact of two weeks of full virtual instruction with my grandson in seventh grade,” Kuhn said. “In that time, he has lost his focus and become more unruly.”

Kuhn also said that she sits on the Extension Committee in her role as a county board supervisor. She said the Gays Mills Food Pantry reported that demand for food in October was two-and-one-half times greater than it had been in September. She said that the area was clearly experiencing elevated food insecurity.

Ed Heisz expressed surprise and concern that 37 percent of students are getting at least one ‘F’ grade in a class. He expressed concerns about whether the full virtual model was engaging the upperclassmen in the school.

“I think we need to return to the hybrid model of instruction, especially for the younger students,” Heisz said. “I also think that the high school students should be in school, in-person four days per week, with a virtual day on Wednesday to allow the school to be cleaned and sanitized.”

Heisz said that if the board decided to keep kids out of the building for additional time after the holiday break, that it should be handled as a ‘vacation’ and the end of the school year pushed out in the spring.

Jim Dworschack said that he agreed with all of the things that had been said, and that “there was no easy answer.”

“That being said, I think the district needs to err on the side of caution,” Dworschack said. “I think the board should decide to maintain the full virtual model from now until after the holiday break.”

Tanya Forkash said that she wanted to echo what Dworschack had said.

“This is a very trying time,” Forkash said. “At the beginning of the school year, we all agreed that we should follow the guidance of the experts, and Dr. Fauci has said that school is one of the safest places for children. On the other hand, I worry about the students and the staff.”

Forkash announced that she was leaning toward voting to “hit it hard until after Christmas and New Years,” and maintain the full virtual model until then.

“I don’t believe that we have yet seen the impacts of the Thanksgiving holiday and deer hunting,” Forkash said.

Ed Heisz moved, and Judy Powell seconded a motion to return to the hybrid learning model from December 14-23. The motion passed, with Jim Dworschack and Tanya Forkash voting no.

Ed Heisz moved, and Terry O’Donnell seconded, a motion to return to the hybrid learning model after the holiday break on Monday, Jan. 4. The motion passed with Jim Dworschack and Tanya Forkash voting no.

Public input

Staff and parents had provided public input on the ‘learning model’ subject earlier in the meeting.

Teacher and parent, Erika Wilson, expressed that she did not think it was a good choice to bring students back to the building until the district could clearly see what the impact of not being together for two weeks was.

“We won’t have a clear picture of the impact until after the students are back in the building, and then we will have another potential super-spreader event right after that,” Wilson said. “Full virtual is not the ideal choice, but I think it is the safest choice right now.”

Middle School math teacher Jessica Jaeger said she agreed with what Erika Wilson had said.

“Recently, my father passed away – not from COVID – but the family had a very hard time being with him,” Jaeger said. “I was specifically forbidden from visiting because, occupationally, I am considered to be at high risk of exposure to the virus because I work at a school.”

Jaeger said that there are lots of unintended consequences to everyone from the decision to have students together in school, and that the situation is very tough on both the students and the teachers.

“I don’t envy the board having to make this decision,” Jaeger said. “We have staff members who are medically fragile, and teaching in the full virtual model allows me to focus without the distraction and worry.”

Middle School/High School Secretary Lori Foley advocated for a return to the hybrid learning model.

“The longer we stay in the full virtual model, the more damage it is doing,” Foley stated. “Students are struggling, their emotional well-being is plummeting, and some are failing their classes.”

Foley said that she is worried that some high school students will drop out, and pointed out that 37 percent of students have one or more ‘F’ grades in their classes. She said that some kids lack the discipline for the full virtual model, and that the camaraderie of being together in school is important for social development.

“At the beginning of the year, parents had a choice of whether to have their students in the hybrid model or the virtual model, and they still have that choice,” Foley said. “The virus is not being spread in the school – it is being spread in the community.”

Kindergarten teacher Sue Klema advocated for a return to the hybrid learning model.

“Some of my kindergarteners do great in full virtual, especially when their parents are there with them,” Klema said. “But for others, the model is just not conducive to learning, and it is better for them to be in the school.”

Middle School/High School principal Toby Tripalin also weighed in on the decision.

“There’s no question that the best thing is to have the kids in the school, in front of their teachers, and we are paying the price for the lack of that,” Tripalin said. “But my concern right now is the number of cases in the community, which have never been higher.”

Tripalin said that “kids are resilient,” and stated that he believes that the health of the students, the staff and the community “trumps everything else right now.” He said that the nation had made choices, which has resulted in prolonging the pandemic, and he advocated for staying in the full virtual model until after the holidays were past.

Educational Assistant Chanda Chellevold stated that she was in agreement with Tripalin.

“I personally have been a positive COVID case, and thank the lucky stars, I survived,” Chellevold said. “My symptoms were so mild, I would never have guessed that I would test positive. I just don’t think it is safe enough to walk back into the building until after the holidays.”

Elementary Principal Amanda Killeen also weighed in, and shared a personal story.

“I too have been one of the positive COVID cases in the last two weeks,” Killeen said. “I have been recovering at home, but it was suggested that I should go to the emergency room. How did I get the virus? I am not sure. I pumped gas wearing a N95 mask, and I have been at work.”

Kileen said that she is worried about the older staff and asymptomatic transmission of the virus.

“Being sick with COVID-19 is an awful experience,” Killen observed.

First Grade teacher Sarah Haefer told the board that she is 24-weeks pregnant, and said she feels strongly that it is “silly” to bring students back into the building for the one-and-one-half weeks before the holiday break.

“We have vulnerable staff and students who could suffer the more serious impacts of the virus,” Haefer said. “It is wiser and safer to remain in full virtual until after the holidays.”

Parent Tim Bromeland also addressed the issue.

“I can clearly see that the teachers prefer to remain in full virtual until after the holidays, and I respect that,” Bromeland said. “As a parent, my issue is that my seventh grader hasn’t seen a paper assignment since November 19. My elementary student is doing great. If the decision is to remain full virtual until after the holidays, I’d like to see more paper homework.”

Parent Emily Bialkowski was the last to offer public input.

“My teenager hasn’t struggled with school this year, but she is burned out and I believe her mental health has suffered,” Bialkowski said. “I am concerned about families less fortunate than ours, and I think if we are to continue with the virtual model, then the students should either have less work or a longer break to allow families to regain a sense of peace in mind and spirit.”

In other business

In other business, the board:

• heard that elementary academic results for virtual instruction are better than they were last spring

• heard that the National Honor Society ‘Ugly Sweater Fun Run’ event had been a great success

• heard from the superintendent that he is hopeful that the district may benefit from future COVID aid packages

• accepted the resignation of FACE instructor Candace Peterson, effective at the end of the semester

• offered the half-time, limited-term, elementary guidance counselor position to Rebecca Eby

• discussed what the best tool would be for the board to perform their evaluation of the superintendent.