The Janesville School District’s middle and high school students will return to classrooms next week as planned, although the school board Tuesday heard pleas to both reopen the schools and extend virtual learning.
The district’s older students have been learning virtually since the board approved a pivot from Nov. 30 through Jan. 15 to prevent possible COVID-19 exposure caused by holiday gatherings. Elementary students have continued to learn in person.
Students have Monday off for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but in-person classes will resume Tuesday, Jan. 19.
Parent Karla Herrman wept as she spoke about her daughter, a Marshall Middle School student who started the school year strong when all schools were in person. When the middle and high schools went online after Thanksgiving, Herrman said her daughter’s grades plummeted.
“By the time I found out she was in trouble, she was missing 21 assignments,” Herrman said. “... Not one teacher reached out to me. ... She’s been marked absent more than ever now because (she’s) not getting her work done during class time, so it looks like she’s truant. And she’s not because I have been making her be online. I’ve been monitoring her.
“I have been harder on her than I’ve ever been in the past two months, and it’s ruining our relationship,” she said. “I don’t even feel like a good mother anymore. This school district and this teacher’s union is failing and has failed my daughter this second quarter.”
Herrman said schools need to be educating students in person, and teachers with concerns should switch to ARISE Virtual Academy or find new jobs.
Board member Karl Dommershausen made a different argument, introducing a motion to keep middle and high school students learning virtually until Feb. 12. The motion failed because it did not receive a second.
“I’m not sure we’re at a point that we can make a decision,” Dommershausen said of reopening schools.
The board did not have to vote on students’ return to classrooms next week because that was already part of the plan.
Superintendent Steve Pophal told the board that staff wants students back in school.
“I can tell you, I’ve been out in the schools a lot lately, particularly our middle and high schools, talking to a lot of staff, talking to our administrators, teachers, custodians, food service staff,” Pophal said.
“And over and over again I hear them saying, ‘Look, it’s going as well as it can. We’re doing as well as we can. But we need our kids back at school.’”
Enrollment numbers support Pophal’s statement. More students are switching back to in-person learning than changing to virtual learning at ARISE, he said.
About 2,700 students were enrolled at ARISE to start the year, and that number is closer to 2,000 now, Pophal.
Elementary and middle school students can switch between in-person and virtual learning once each semester, and high-schoolers can switch during the first three weeks of a new semester. The high school has a limited window because of credit requirements.
In-person learning is important, Pophal said. He said the current curriculum is solid, but high school students don’t have a typical full curriculum because of the A/B alternating schedule to mitigate health risks.
“They (teachers) have had to really go through those courses and identify what the most essential learning targets are and that they’re able to cover the really ‘have to cover’ stuff,” he said. “But they definitely cannot cover, in the same comprehensive way, the curriculum as they could if kids were there all day, every day.
“And so there definitely are some compromises going on there. The integrity, the really essential stuff, though, is intact. And we’re confident that kids are getting the opportunity to learn the things that are important.”