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State Superintendent Says Schools Will Likely Reopen, But Will "Look Different"


June 25, 2020

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) on Monday released an 87-page document intended to help guide a return to in-person schooling this fall. “Education Forward: Safely and Successfully Reopening Wisconsin Schools” goes into detail about public health considerations, education outcomes and equity initiatives, all of which could play a role in how local school boards prepare for an unprecedented return to brick and mortar classrooms.

“The goal of this guidance is to offer clear and straightforward decision-making points of consideration for all districts to consider,” states the document.

“School board members are, by nature, generalists rather than professional educators. These guidelines can inform board members and help them better evaluate the plans being put forward to guide their district’s reopening,” said John Ashley, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards.

There are 421 school districts, 26 independent charter schools, and 792 private schools serving a school-age population of more than 1 million students in Wisconsin.

DPI admits that “deaths from COVID-19 are possible while the virus is in circulation, especially [among] children and adults in high-risk categories.”

“Fear, loss, and isolation may result in the need for increased mental health supports,” the document continued. “Whole child supports are encouraged. Communications with staff, families, and students are critical to the success of safe return to schools.”

According to DPI, current goals include keeping students and staff physically safe; caring for the social-emotional and mental health needs of students and staff; keeping learning coherent by creating a scope of standards with aligned systems of assessments, bound in units of instruction - whether learning is in-person, virtual, or physically-distanced; meeting the needs of every student by considering the unique experiences of students and by considering students’ families as active partners in learning; and designing flexibility into school schedules, built-environments, protocols, and norms for being together in-person, physically-distanced, and through virtual learning.

“Responding to COVID-19 is a tremendous undertaking for schools,” wrote Carolyn Stanford Taylor, State Superintendent. “Schools are tasked with re-envisioning educational delivery models in a span of weeks and adjust practices accordingly. As we look toward the fall, the safety and health of our students, educators, and families remains of the highest importance.”

“The Department of Public Instruction (DPI) is providing this guidance to aid in school districts’ decision making as they look to build educational services and supports in a COVID-19 environment,” she continued. “Under state law, school districts determine the operations of their buildings and the learning environment. Risk mitigation and health factors will drive decisions regarding school operations. While I expect schools to reopen this fall, they will undoubtedly look different.”

There will need to be social distancing, new cleaning and disinfecting procedures, and changes to how educators deliver instruction, Stanford Taylor said.

“There will be students who are not able to return to school due to health concerns and students and staff who may be quarantined due to exposure,” she continued. “This means every school district will need to plan for both school operations on campus and remote learning. The DPI will be using federal CARES Act dollars to support school districts around remote learning options.”

Changes will need to be made “as districts look at how they provide meals to students, transport students to and from school, move through their buildings, and gather to celebrate achievements.”

In writing the document, the DPI worked with the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators, Association of Wisconsin School Administrators, Wisconsin Council of Administrators of Special Services, Wisconsin Association of School Business Officials, Wisconsin Association of School Boards, Wisconsin Education Association Council, and the Cooperative Educational Service Agency Statewide Network, and in conjunction with the Department of Health Services.

“Due to the extensive variance in schools, this guidance is offered as a workbook to be considered in conjunction with the Department of Health Services risk assessment checklist,” Stanford Taylor said. “Please use these tools to discuss school district reopening plans with local health agencies and ensure information is complete in regards to the magnitude of risk associated with options being considered. The DPI will continuously update this guidance as new information arises and provide additional resources as they become available to support school operations and the learning environment. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the inequities existing in Wisconsin. As we look to address these inequities and the planning around the pandemic, the DPI is focused on providing school districts the necessary supports and regulatory relief to pursue innovative strategies to ensure equitable access to learning.”

DPI recommends K-12 schools in Wisconsin create plans based on several key assumptions. They are: The virus will remain in circulation until a vaccine is developed and widely used. A vaccine is not likely to be in broad use during the next 12-18 months. Improvements in understanding the virus and in testing will allow public health officials to act with greater precision when taking steps to slow the rate of infection. Another wave of infections could occur resulting in changes to operations or closure. Short-term closures of schools will remain a possibility until a vaccine is widely used. Children and staff with significant health conditions will continue to be especially vulnerable during this time. Teaching and reinforcing prevention behaviors (hand washing and cough/sneeze etiquette) and promoting influenza vaccinations will continue to be essential strategies in slowing the spread of this and other infectious diseases. Frequent cleaning and disinfection of high-touch surfaces are needed throughout this period. When schools are reopened, it is likely operations will need to be modified to include the following: Screening of students and staff for symptoms; Social distancing in all settings; and Isolation and timely removal of students and staff who are displaying symptoms.


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