Janesville elementary school teachers are asking the Janesville School Board to reconsider its decision to open those schools after the Thanksgiving break.

The school board voted at a special meeting Nov. 18 to pivot high school and middle school students to virtual education from Nov. 30 through Jan. 15 but keep elementary students in person during that time.

The decision was made because of a surge in COVID-19 cases throughout the district and Rock County. The Milton School District switched all of its students to virtual learning for the same time frame.

Dave Groth, president of the Janesville Education Association, the local teachers union, sent a letter Monday to district administrators and board members, saying elementary school teachers were “outraged” at the decision.

Several board members voiced concerns at the special meeting about elementary students trying to learn virtually and the need for parents to find child care.

After the meeting, Superintendent Steve Pophal told The Gazette the decision made sense.

“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.”

Groth wrote that teachers feel differently.

“After last Wednesday’s board meeting, I immediately heard from elementary teachers that were outraged at the idea that the high school and middle school teachers were allowed to go virtual for the rest of the semester and they were not,” he wrote. “… They are questioning how asking elementary teaching staff and students to go against the county’s recommendations promotes a safe environment for learning.”

Groth said the teachers support teaching elementary students in person, also, but he said the Thanksgiving break will add unnecessary risk.

He asked the board to consider a pivot to virtual learning for elementary students after the break.

“Thanksgiving get-togethers by staff as well as student families will create super-spreader events all over the district,” he wrote in the letter. “The four days between Thanksgiving and when students and staff return to the elementary schools are ripe for all to be subject to the further spreading of COVID-19.

“The staff are asking for themselves and their students to be shielded from the requirement of attending face-to-face school contacts in the days following the Thanksgiving Day weekend.”

School board President Steve Huth said he understands Groth’s concerns but stands by the board’s decision.

“He is accurate that the board of education values having elementary students in face-to-face learning environments,” Huth said. “We as a board do not assume families aren’t going to follow recommendations and avoid mass gatherings, and it is obvious based on all the data we have that the best learning environment for these kids is face to face.”

The board is set to discuss how the pivot is working at its Dec. 8 meeting, Huth said.

When asked about planning, he pointed to the district’s additional safety measures this year and the decision to have all students learn virtually this week to ensure compliance with COVID-19 protocols in elementary schools.

For now, elementary school students will learn in person. But that can happen only if the community follows Rock County and school district guidelines to slow the virus’ spread, he said.

County health leaders urged residents Tuesday not to celebrate Thanksgiving with those outside their households.

Huth hopes residents will heed the recommendation. He didn’t rule out a future pivot to virtual education for the youngest learners if virus cases continue to rise.

“Our hope is that people are going to be smart and safe over the holidays,” Huth said. “And if we have to pivot elementary schools to virtual, we are prepared to do that.”