The Milton School District will close schools to in-person education for the rest of the year after Thanksgiving break, but the Janesville School District will close only its high schools and middle schools, leaving elementary schools open.
The Milton and Janesville school boards made those decisions Wednesday in an effort to prevent further outbreaks of COVID-19.
All Milton schools will pivot to virtual learning beginning Nov. 30 and stay virtual through Jan. 15. In Janesville, high school and middle school students will pivot to virtual learning for the same amount of time, while elementary students will continue learning in person.
Teachers are expected to teach from their classrooms, regardless of the delivery model.
“They (school board) worked really hard to try to strike a balance between the important safety issues right now as it relates to the pandemic, while also staying mindful of the fact that students need to have their educational, social, mental and emotional needs met,” Janesville Superintendent Steve Pophal said.
“There is a difference between a 6-year-old and a 16-year-old, and I think the board recognized that our littlest learners are our most vulnerable,” he said, “and … in spite of the risk to come to school every day, they need to have those needs tended to.”
Several Janesville School Board members voiced concerns about elementary students trying to learn virtually and the need for parents to find child care. Because no changes were made, the board did not vote on the elementary schools plan.
Officials from both districts said they hope the decisions will help slow the spread of COVID-19, which is advancing across Rock County. The decisions are consistent with guidance released by the Rock County Public Health Department on Monday.
The school board votes came one day after some Rock County school boards made similar decisions and two rejected the county’s guidance. The Edgerton and Clinton school districts will pivot to virtual education, while the Evansville and Parkview districts will not.
The county health department recommended Monday that school districts should pivot to virtual learning through the holidays.
Health officials expressed concern about students and staff traveling to see people they don’t live with and then exposing other students or staff members when they return. That coupled with rising COVID-19 numbers is a dangerous combination, they said.
Hospitals are at maximum capacity based on available beds and staff, according to documents from county epidemiologist Nick Zupan.
As COVID-19 case numbers continue to rise, Janesville and Milton school board members thought it was the right time to switch to in-person education.
Special-education students can continue learning in person if their care teams deem it necessary, officials said.
Switching the Janesville high schools to virtual learning passed on an 8-1 vote. Board member Dale Thompson opposed it because he wanted an A/B in-person schedule.
The middle school pivot passed on a 5-4 vote, with Steve Huth, Michelle Haworth, Jim Millard and Thompson opposing. Opponents argued students might not be able to handle the responsibilities and juggling that virtual learning requires.
The Janesville district currently has 24 positive cases among students and 14 among staff, according to its COVID-19 dashboard. The dashboard shows 450 students and 91 staff members were quarantining as of Tuesday.
Data presented at the meeting shows 227 staff members have requested or required COVID-19-related leave since August, including quarantine time. Of the 227 requests, 168 of them were received in November.
Forty-nine students tested positive for the virus in September and October combined. So far, November has had 73 positive cases.
Other data shows Janesville schools are not able to fill teacher absences with substitute teachers. From Nov. 2-13, the district reported 884 teacher absences, and just 335 of them were covered.
The board received more than 30 public comments, and three people spoke in person at the meeting.
Dave Groth, president of the Janesville Education Association, said teachers support a pivot to virtual learning.
Janesville considered switching all in-person middle school and elementary students to an A/B system, in which students would learn virtually on Mondays and alternate days at school for the rest of the week.
“Do you want to be kicked in the shin or hit in the stomach? Because that’s about what it boils down to,” Pophal told board members about the pivot options.
“There are no easy decisions here tonight. There’s not an obvious right or wrong,” he said before the votes.
Board member Cathy Myers teaches both in-person and virtual classes in Illinois in a blended schedule. She argued for virtual learning instead of an A/B schedule, saying that it is not ideal and health is more important in this situation.
“I think my in-person kids are doing better than my remote kids, but this year is a year of trade-offs and sacrifices,” she said. “… And I don’t want to sacrifice anybody’s education, but I don’t want to put their families at risk. I think we did in August what community members wanted. I think it was the right decision at that moment, but I think the data is so different now.”
Milton School Board officials approved a pivot to virtual learning on a 7-0 vote Wednesday. As of Nov. 12, the Milton district’s COVID-19 dashboard shows 12 active cases among students and seven among staff. The numbers show 120 students and six staff members in quarantine.
Milton High School students returned to in-person learning this week after a pivot Oct. 29. Now, they will pivot again with the other schools.
“It balances our responsibilities to both limit the risk to the health and safety of our students, staff and community while continuing to provide high-quality education to our students,” Milton Superintendent Rich Dahman said.
“We’ve been in the virtual model before, and we believe we can do it well. We believe keeping students out of our school buildings will help us to prevent the wide spread of COVID-19 in our schools, which is spreading rapidly throughout our county.”
Other area school boards considered the same issue Tuesday.
The Evansville district believes it is handling the virus capably. The school board agreed, voting 4-3 against the health department recommendation Tuesday because members believe the district’s positive case numbers are not the same as the county’s numbers.
The board heard two hours of comments from residents. Some board members and residents said Evansville is doing better than the rest of the county, but others weren’t convinced.
The district will move forward with its own reopening plan, and students will return to school after Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks.
The Edgerton School Board supported pivoting to virtual instruction from Nov. 30 through Jan. 15. The measure passed 7-2, and district officials will discuss logistics Monday.
The Clinton School Board voted to follow the health department’s suggestions and will pivot from Nov. 30 to Jan. 15.
Like Evansville, Parkview decided against a pivot after the holidays but is prepared to pivot if COVID-19 cases rise, Superintendent Steve Lutzke told the Beloit Daily News.
The district has seen few cases and staff is handling the pandemic well, Lutzke said.