Janesville School District teachers are pushing for a virtual start to the school year as the district prepares a fall reopening plan that includes in-person instruction.

The district intends to move forward with its current plan, Superintendent Steven Pophal told The Gazette on Wednesday.

Dave Groth, president of the Janesville Education Association, the local teachers union, asked the school board to reconsider the reopening plan at its meeting Tuesday.

Under the current plan, students have three educational options—in-person learning, virtual learning or a hybrid model—but all of them start school Sept. 1.

“The teachers professional union’s position on this is we should start not face to face in either distanced learning or virtual learning for the first quarter, and we should give ourselves a little more time to get the readiness ready on Sept. 8,” Groth said. “… That gives us even more time to watch and look at things (like) other districts in the Big Eight that have chosen to go that way. I really think this group should reconsider that option.”

Teacher Laura Mattison told the school board she compiled the results of a teachers union survey of all staff. The 24-question survey was completed July 22-28 by 587 staff members throughout the district.

“Few teachers were part of the creation of the return-to-school plan,” Mattison said. “Due to this, many teachers are concerned that the parents of our Janesville students have confidence in the back-to-school plan because they believe that teachers were an integral part in creating this plan.”

Mattison said the survey results show:

  • Almost 73% of survey respondents believe they didn’t have input in the reopening plan.
  • About 75% thought the district shouldn’t proceed with the current plan.
  • About 76% want in-person teaching delayed until free testing is readily available.
  • More than 90% want masks worn, but many have doubts about enforcement of a mask policy.
  • Fifty percent want class sizes of 10 students, and 34% want 15 students.

Pophal told the board Tuesday that a return to classrooms is essential for many families so parents can return to work. He said some local employers and teachers have thanked him for allowing students to return.

The district planned to move ahead with its current plan as of Wednesday afternoon, Pophal said. A switch to virtual learning won’t happen unless school becomes unsafe because of a COVID-19 outbreak, he said.

In a district with 850 teachers, the union’s survey might not tell the whole story, Pophal said.

“It’s (virtual start) not what the board is going to do,” he said. “The only way we’re going to flip is based on what’s going on with the virus and data.”

A school district survey of parents in June showed 80% of parents who responded would be comfortable with in-person instruction.

About 80% of respondents who said they are teachers and parents of preschool or elementary students were comfortable with in-person learning in the June survey. About 85% of respondents who are teachers and parents of middle or high school children said the same.

But many teachers aren’t as convinced, Groth said. He said a lot has changed since the June survey and that an online start would allow for more preparation.

“What concerns me is the other Big Eight schools. They’re straight virtual to start,” Groth said. “They don’t have ARISE (Janesville’s virtual school), so they’re all doing distance learning. They don’t have to rotate anybody because everybody is virtual.

“At first ARISE was a great tool, and I’m not against it, but if we have to move any staff members out of buildings to help with ARISE, they’re no longer in our other schools, and there is a domino effect there.”

Groth said starting virtually also would ensure continuity if the flu season strikes and closes schools, as many Janesville teachers expect.

“I believe the solutions to things, there is a simplicity to it,” he said. “In the plan we currently have, there’s so many things that are not simple, that make you say, ‘Man, it just doesn’t feel like the right answer.’ If we start virtual, it’s just simple.”

Other countries have used rigorous testing and tracing as prerequisites before allowing students back in schools, Groth told the school board Tuesday. He pointed to the World Health Organization’s recommendation, which says a community’s positive test rate should be below 5% before it reopens for business, and schools should use an even lower benchmark.

American schools opening with a 5% community infection rate have seen “disastrous results” and have shut down again, he said.

Groth wants a threshold for school closures and said testing must be readily available, with positive test rates of 3% before schools reopen in Janesville.

Pophal said Wednesday the district will receive metrics from state health officials this week, which will allow schools to plug in data and infection rates to determine when schools should switch between virtual and in-person learning.

With the first day of school less than a month away, Groth said he has thought a lot about what that could mean.

“We have something called open campus at lunch in our high schools, and we’re going to let all those kids pile into cars and go out to lunch,” he said. “At the end of our school days, I just envision my classroom and looking out the window and seeing the kids with their masks walk out the door and begin taking their masks off and basically mirroring what’s going on in our community.

“Just bringing that number of kids together, I really feel, is not a good thing.”