Families in the Janesville School District will decide for themselves what school looks like this fall.
The Janesville School Board on Tuesday unanimously approved a plan that will allow each family and student to decide whether children will learn in classrooms, virtually through ARISE or a combination of the two.
For all K-12 students, the district is offering the options of learning fully in-person or fully virtually.
Students in the middle and high schools will have a hybrid option: taking classes through ARISE and learning in person every day.
Communication will be sent to families Wednesday with next steps. Picking an education model for their children will be part of the registration process. The district will evaluate the responses from parents Aug. 1 to plan further for staffing.
Superintendent Steve Pophal said the district wanted to balance safety with academic needs, nutritional support, child care concerns for parents and other concerns.
On Tuesday night, the Janesville School Board showed unanimous support to--at the very least--allow the high schools athletic directors and other officials to proceed forward in making plans to conduct fall sports.
“We came to the conclusion very quickly that only having one choice is a false choice,” Pophal told The Gazette. “A one-size-fits-all (approach) is not what’s going to be best for all kids in the long haul. We need to have way more diversity in our school programming than that.”
The district resorted to a pass/fail grading system this spring, but traditional grading will return for all ages this fall regardless of learning method.
Schedules for students in the hybrid model will be customized for each student.
Students in the hybrid model could choose to take core classes such as science, math, language arts and social studies at ARISE before physically attending a Janesville school for electives such as band, welding and Spanish. The number of in-person classes will vary among students.
Special education students have individual educational plans, so the people on those teams will look at accommodations or modifications based on each student.
Pophal estimated ARISE could see more than 2,000 students with the changes, a large jump from last year’s 200 students. Staffing ARISE likely will cost more this year as a result.
The district’s charter schools—TAGOS, Rock University High School and Rock River Charter School—could offer smaller class sizes and in-person instruction for those uncomfortable with a full return, Pophal said.
No layoffs are expected with the changes, and the district is reaching out to retired teachers to see if they would be interested in helping at ARISE or in other areas.
Pophal said virtual learning, preferred by about 10% of parents in a recent survey, will be different from what students experienced at the end of this school year because they now have had time to plan and prepare.
“Don’t confuse what happened this spring with what this virtual learning is going to be. We had no notice (this spring), so we had to really pare down the curriculum and shift what grading looked like because the circumstances necessitated us doing that. The virtual experience that awaits kids now will be robust, rigorous, comprehensive curriculums,” he said.
Board member Michelle Haworth said her daughter has attended ARISE, and she applauded the curriculum. She said it is rigorous and intensive.
Allowing families to choose virtual or hybrid also will help those who prefer an in-person delivery method, Pophal said. Middle school and high school students already assembled their schedules for this school year, so the number of students in classrooms will go down as students choose hybrid or virtual.
“To the extent that people pick virtual or hybrid. ...What we’re trying to do is reduce the size of the herd at each of our schools so that we have a better shot at keeping the people doing face-to-face safe. What we’re trying to do is take 25 students (in a class) down to 15 or 18. To the extent that we can do that, we can get more space between kids.”
Elementary-aged students will continue to use online learning platform Seesaw regardless of what model they are in. Middle school and high school students will use Google Classroom each day.
Teachers are training over the summer with the platforms, and the district has adopted an educational model dependent on the platforms that will be implemented district-wide, Pophal said.
Doing so will allow the district to quickly change to virtual education for all students if an outbreak occurs, Pophal said. The district is still working with the Rock County Public Health Department to determine what numbers would indicate an immediate shutdown.
“When kids come back to school ... they’re going to be in these common learning platforms with common instructional pedagogy and agreed-upon curriculum across the district, which has not been in place. And so now if all of a sudden it’s one o’clock on Wednesday afternoon and we find out starting tomorrow we’re virtual for the next two days or the next two weeks, or whatever that is, it’s kind of seamless.”
Pophal said having the online platforms will allow the district to keep its promise of engaged and empowered learning and will likely change education for the foreseeable future.
“All of this is really wrapped around kids being more the creators of content instead of consumers of content,” he said. “Here’s a great example of how we’re using something that’s really unfortunate to pivot into an outcome that’s going to really have long lasting benefits for the district.”
Students will not be required to wear masks when social distancing, but they will be highly encouraged. Masks will be required for small group work in which social distancing is not possible.
Protective equipment has been hard to come by for the district because of a nationwide shortage. The district is still waiting for some of the hand sanitizer it ordered in March, for example.
Prent Corp. donated 2,000 face shields to be used by teachers, and the district is expecting 40,000 cloth masks shortly, too.
Water fountains will not be open, but some water bottle fillers will be. Staff and students will be asked to complete health checks each morning before reporting to school.
Stickers that outline walkways in hallways will likely be added to schools. Principals and other building leaders are working to create building-specific plans for safety and daily operations.
Daily cleaning will continue, and sanitizing will be added. Students will be taught about hand washing and other best practices.
Two health rooms will operate at each school. One will be available to help with daily health procedures such as distributing Band-Aids, administering insulin and inhaler use. A separate room will hold students showing signs of COVID-19 until parents can pick them up.
Visitors will be reduced to appointments when possible. Almost all volunteer programs will be paused to reduce the number of people in schools.
The district has examined ways to accommodate employees who need time off, including the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. This will allow staff 10 days off without using sick days or vacation time. This leave of absence can be used if a family member tests positive and in other outlined COVID-19 situations.
Employees with health issues worried about exposure could be given the option to teach at ARISE, Pophal said.
Survey results shared earlier this month show 80% of parents would be comfortable with in-person instruction this fall. Those results helped the district build the reopening plan.
Pophal said the survey results were expected but were important to “confirm what we believed our parents want and what our community needs.”
Students will take a reading and math assessment at the beginning of the school year to examine progress and educational landmarks. The assessment is given every year.
Teachers already are working together to rebuild the curriculum for the school year and may back-fill essential parts of the curriculum missed in the 2019-20 school year. As an example, fourth-grade math may begin by reviewing and learning parts of advanced third-grade math.
As the district navigates the opening, Pophal said, it will require buy-in from everyone involved.
“The key here isn’t just to open on Sept. 1. It’s to stay open in the long haul. A lot of people might be happy that we open on Sept. 1, but if we have to close on Sept. 30 and pivot to virtual … that’s not good enough,” Pophal said.
“We’re going to ask parents, students and staff to be part of the solution. If you want school to stay open, then we all need you to help.”
Ernesto Galindo, a student at Craig High School, disagrees with reopening school fully and worries about the spread of COVID-19 for both staff and students. He said virtual learning was working.
His mother, Evelyn, is a teacher in the Beloit School District and shared concerns, as well.
“There is no possible way that one student with the coronavirus cannot pass it to someone else,” Ernesto said.
He was one of a handful of parents, teachers and students who spoke to the board about the policy.
David Groth, president of the Janesville Education Association, asked the school board and administrators to examine other school districts that open before September and take notes. He told them to make sure there are plans in place for transitioning out of in-person instruction.
Board member Cathy Myers, who also teaches English at Hononegah High School in Rockton, Illinois, started to cry Tuesday as she thanked those who created the reopening plan, saying she worries about returning to the classroom for both teachers and children, but the plan makes her feel better about it.
The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 has grown steadily in the last seven days after weeks of low hospital activity.
Mark Goelzer, medical director for Mercyhealth, said reopening businesses, the Fourth of July holiday and less adherence to safety guidelines all likely contributed to the increases.
Since July 7, COVID-19 hospitalizations across the county’s four hospitals have increased each day from five to 12 on Monday and Tuesday, according to data from the Rock County Public Health Department.
Hospitalizations hovered between four and five people from June 23 to July 6, according to health department data.
Mercyhealth was able to shut down its COVID-19 unit for a brief time, but it has since reopened, Goelzer said.
The county hit its peak of hospitalizations May 26 with 27 people. Hospitalizations began falling after that, remained steadily low and then started climbing last week.
Hospitalizations are expected to increase as positive cases increase, health department spokeswoman Kelsey Cordova said in an email to The Gazette.
There have been no known outbreaks or events to cause the recent increases, Cordova said.
It has been about a month since the county entered its second phase of reopening, which includes guidelines that keep most businesses at half capacity.
Goelzer said the reopening of crowded places, such as bars, is problematic because people tend to get close together and are less careful about following safety recommendations.
The county is seeing more people younger than 40 test positive for the virus, Cordova said.
In addition, contact tracers are encountering more people who are reluctant to share information about who they have seen or where they have been since becoming infected, Cordova said.
“We want everyone to know that we will not judge anyone for their habits, activities or number of contacts,” she said.
“We want to stop the virus, and we can only do that effectively if we can identify and reach out to people who are potentially infected before they come into contact with others.”
The health department believes recent increases are mostly caused by spread within the community, Cordova said.
Rock County has seen consistently high day-to-day increases in positive cases over the last week.
The county reported 30 more confirmed cases from Monday to Tuesday, one of the highest daily increases since the pandemic started.
Rock County now has 278 confirmed, active cases of the virus.
Since mid-March, the county has reported 1,071 confirmed cases, 24 deaths and 759 people who have recovered.
Elderly patients are considered the most at risk of becoming critically ill, but Goelzer warns more people can get seriously ill without an easy explanation.
The average age of those hospitalized with COVID-19 in Rock County is 60, Cordova said.
Goelzer said he has seen the average age of hospitalized patients decrease over time as people with underlying conditions such as diabetes, obesity and hypertension have become seriously ill.
It will be a year or so before health officials fully understand why people get seriously ill from the virus, Goelzer said.
Some nonelderly adults have experienced serious complications—stroke, heart attack and inflammation—without any known underlying conditions, Goelzer said.
Officials from Mercyhealth and SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital-Janesville said they continue to monitor capacity and update their surge plans as needed.
Mercyhealth has plenty of negative-pressure rooms and ventilators available as of Tuesday, Goelzer said.
Health care systems learned a lot at the beginning of the pandemic, and that has helped health care workers better manage the situation now, Goelzer said. For example, a lot more is known about when a ventilator is needed and which drugs can be used to treat symptoms such as inflammation, he said.
Officials from the hospitals and health department are adamant in urging people to wear masks in public, social distance, wash their hands regularly, and avoid groups and crowds.
Goelzer said he would support a countywide mask mandate. However, county officials have not publicly endorsed a mask ordinance.
Janesville City Manager Mark Freitag said Monday the city does not have the legal authority to enact a mask ordinance because it does not have a health officer or its own health department.
Jeannette L. Baumgartner
Doris Henning Condon
Walter G. Cook
Alyce Jean Douglas
Barbara J. Emert
Brian Fredrick Gulledge
Catherine E. Larson
Judith Ann Loizzo
Shirley Ann Pohlman
Wayne A. Saxe
Sarah J. Tanner
Jesse J. Tougas
John Henry Woodstock