Board Discusses Data, Medical Advisory Board

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Cameron Bren

MIDDLETON–The Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District Board of Education reviewed the district’s virtual instruction model as the first quarter comes to an end. The board also reviewed the latest COVID-19 local health data, discussed establishing a medical advisory board and approved wage increases for all district staff. 

Superintendent Dana Monogue said the district is doing the best it can to respond to feedback from students and families about virtual instruction and tweak the process along the way.

“This pandemic has put another spotlight on the inequities that are present in our schools and has demanded that we work together in some ways to make sure we are reaching every student in our care,” Monogue said. “Our resources are being maximized, our educators are working very long hours and we are all feeling the impacts of this pandemic.”

Monogue acknowledged the significant burden virtual instructions puts on families. 

District administrators continue to communicate weekly with other districts in Dane County. She visited Verona schools which started a blended model of instruction and will visit DeForest schools next. Monogue said she is observing districts across the state as well.

Many of the schools that reopened have had to quarantine classes or buildings. 

“The world of quarantine and closure is part of the new normal of school operations,” Monogue said.

All of the health metrics the district is tracking for COVID-19 have worsened since the board’s last meeting, Monogue said. She noted a press release from Public Health Madison Dane County (PHMDC) indicating the agency is now in crisis mode for contact tracing and concerned about the rising levels of hospitalizations and ICU patients for COVID-19.

If and when kids come back into the buildings the district will need to hire additional staff for contact tracing, Monogue said.

She presented a chart now available on the district’s website which documents all staff that have been exposed to COVID-19 are quarantining. About 60 staff from across the district have been placed in quarantine so far. 

Monogue said the district is experiencing staff and substitute shortages and wants the board to consider hiring a permanent sub pool. An analysis will be presented at the next meeting.

Board member Paul Kinne asked if comparable data is available for private schools that reopened. Monogue said that information is not public, but the district can reach out to those schools to request that insight.  

PHMDC released guidance for winter sports which recommend students gather indoors in groups of 10 or less and outdoors in groups of 25 or less. The high school is reviewing potential programming options, Monogue said.

The feedback from families about virtual instruction has been widely varied, Monogue said, though concerns about student mental health and consistency across schools continues to be received.

Dane County Executive Joe Parisi recently commissioned a mental health task force at which Monogue and other area superintendents will meet with.

Wellness coordinator Kalise Horst reviewed a list of mental health resources on the district’s website. Director of Student Services Barb Buffington said staff are also working with students through school based mental health programs. 

Monogue said about 360 students have been identified as not engaging. The reasons vary but, she noted some families are struggling to meet their basic needs and provide the necessities for a virtual learning environment. Some students have mental health needs or care for a younger sibling or work, while some just do not like virtual learning. 

Staff are trying many different strategies to engage those students finding some to be more successful than others. The district is now offering in person instruction for students with IEPs.

Board member Bob Green said he was concerned about the students who were already struggling before the pandemic. Monogue said that continues to be at the forefront of the conversation during staff meetings.

“It is a really challenging time to be an educator and in some cases they are absorbing a lot of frustration that is present in our community,” Monogue said. 

Deputy Superintendent Sherri Cyra said the district is now assigning support staff to help engage students as well.

Board member Bob Hesselbein acknowledged the difficulty for teachers and school administrators.

At the request of the board Monogue presented research for a medical advisory committee which would be charged with providing board and administration guidance and perspective. 

Monogue proposed the committee bring together a group of about 10 medical professionals from various backgrounds to meet monthly with a couple board members and administrators for about an hour. 

If the board votes to establish the committee on Nov. 9 the district would send out a call for volunteers on the Nov. 10. Monogue said the district would seek diversity of thought and practice. She said she has already been contacted by dozens of local medical professionals offering their advice. She noted the advice has ranged and there is no consensus on how the school should operate during the pandemic. 

Board member Katy Morgan said the process could be streamlined to accommodate the busy work life of those in the medical field. The areas of specialty and number of members should be narrowed down, she added. 

Green said more people could offer a wider range of views which could be beneficial. Their comments could be individually submitted to the board. 

Board member Paul Kinne asked if the committee could complicate the board’s decision making. Monogue said it would be clear at the outset it is not a decision-making body.

Kinne said he was also concerned those on the committee will be subject to heavy public criticism. Monogue said those volunteering would assume some public attention, noting community members have already reached out in response to the proposal on the board agenda.

Hesselbein said the committee would face challenges, but the board needs their expertise. He would like it to meet once a month and more if willing. He said the district cannot back off because of concern of criticism. Hesselbein said the committee should review all district procedures.

Morgan said the district is already getting advice from local medical professionals at PHMDC and said she would prefer the committee to be less formal and be contacted through email.

Green pointed out that a board established committee would be subject to all open records laws and meetings would have to be recorded and publicly available.

Board member Anne Bauer said she is also worried about the potential negative criticism and that the committee could add to the already divisive environment. 

Business Services Director Lori Ames presented the 2021 staff compensation plan which focuses on more competitive starting wages and increases. The plan provides the largest increase for non-teaching staff and para-educators.  

Ames noted the district is participating in a Dane County hiring initiative to raise all groups to a $15 minimum wage resulting in a roughly 2.3 percent increase for support staff. 

Bauer said she was disheartened by some comments from the community saying teachers should not be receiving full pay during virtual instruction. Bauer said she believes the opposite. 

“I couldn’t disagree with that more and I appreciate all the great work that they are doing,” Bauer said.

Green asked how the proposal affects the fund balance. Ames said it does not change the fund balance and is built into the existing budget by tapping into contingency funds and other revenue sources. The compensation plan was approved unanimously.

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