School Board Opts for Half-Day Blended Model Upon Student Return

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By: 
Cameron Bren

MIDDLETON–The Middleton Cross Plains Area School District Board of Education voted unanimously to direct district administration to develop a half-day blended instruction model for students in 4K through 2nd grade when they return to in-person learning. The board is expected to vote on the final plan and timeline at its next meeting on Dec. 7.

Superintendent Dana Monogue reviewed two blended learning models.

Under the half-day model students are divided into morning and afternoon cohorts. There would be a 7:45 a.m. to 10:15 a.m. morning session and a 12:15 p.m. to 2:45 p.m. afternoon session.

Each cohort would attend in-person instruction focused on literacy, math and social/emotional learning. The other half of the school day students would have asynchronous virtual instruction.

Under a 2-1-2 model students would be split into two cohorts each attending in-person instruction two full days a week either Monday and Tuesday or Thursday and Friday and virtual instruction on the other days. The virtual instruction could be asynchronous work or a livestream from the class.

Under both scenarios Wednesday would be a staff planning and independent learning day. Students would eat lunch in the classrooms and have staggered recess times or no recess at all. Classrooms would have between six and 10 kids in a class.

Monogue said at the last meeting the administration preferred the 2-1-2 model but there was interest from board members in the half-day model. Most districts that have reopened implemented a half-day model.

She said the half-day model will work for elementary students but not middle and high schoolers. If those students return this year the model will need to change for elementary students because both models simultaneously are nearly impossible logistically. 

Deputy Superintendent Sherri Cyra said Wednesdays need to be a staff planning day in either model because teachers need time to develop online content. Cyra said the administration is looking at ways to optimize the process by using more third party content or having additional staff convert the lessons.

At the request of the board elementary school teachers and support staff were surveyed on which model they prefer. The results indicate 81 percent of teachers prefer the half-day model while there is about a 50-50 split among other district staff.

Before voting on the models, board members met with Dr. Ellen Wald, Chair of Department of Pediatrics at UW Hospital, who shared a presentation and answered questions.

Wald said the virus is spread mostly by respiratory droplets. Airborne spread of tiny droplets is less common but can be worse in enclosed areas with poor ventilation. Spread is possible but less likely through hand transmission.

“For SARS-CoV-2 by far the most common means by which the virus is spread is from person to person by large droplets,” Wald said.

Wald stated 40 percent of all adults are completely asymptomatic, 40 percent develop mild illness, 15 percent moderate illness, five percent severally ill, and one percent go into ICU. People with underlying health conditions are at greater risk.

“The most common comorbidities in adults are obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure,” Wald said.

Race also plays a factor in outcomes, Wald noted.

“Increased disease and mortality is very striking in minorities and it is really important to emphasize that the Hispanic and Black community members are very overrepresented among both the individuals who become ill as well as those who become the sickest of all and ultimately die,” Wald said.

At the start of the pandemic it was thought children never got infected. Wald said. In early reports children accounted for one to two percent. Children actually account for 12-13 percent of all cases while they are about 20 percent of the total population. 

“Fortunately, it is still true in general that children are asymptomatic or have mild disease,” Wald said.

Severe illness is about one percent in children and age 14 and older have closer infection rates as adults but still tend to have more mild illness.

Hispanic and Black children are also overrepresented in deaths.

Wald said the challenges to controlling the spread of infection are that many who are infected are asymptomatic but can spread the virus. For those who do develop symptoms they are very infectious in the 48 hours leading up to developing symptoms.

Wald noted schools are not a major contributor to community spread but spread in schools usually reflects that of the community.

Wald said students’ overall needs should be taken into consideration noting depression and suicide attempts have increased since the start of the pandemic.

“This has surely been intensified by the inability to attend the normalizing influence of school with early identification of mental health issues and available counseling,” Wald said. 

Educational disparities also disproportionately affect disadvantaged and minority children.

There is no right answer to reopening schools but there must be a balance between children’s needs, community dynamics and mitigation strategies, she said. 

Dane County remains far beyond the rate of infection identified in CDC indicators, Wald pointed out.

Board member Paul Kinne asked why Public Health Madison Dane County is allowing grades K-2 but not beyond. Wald said criteria for older children is much more stringent.

“I think it is unquestionably true that younger children have a lower risk of disease and milder disease and they are felt to be the most needy,” Wald said.

Kinne said considering vaccines are on the way and the board is making a decision for at least a month out, what does Wald expect.

“I don’t think we are going to be better than we are now.” Wald said. “I think the next few months are going to be really rough. There is so much disease in the community that it is at a point it is difficult to control unless everybody really observed the masking rule.”

Wald said the vaccines are great news and exceptionally effective, but it will take a long time to distribute.

Board member Katy Morgan asked Wald about the blended model option. Wald said either model has tradeoffs and it depends what works best for students, families and teachers.

Morgan asked about the risk of transmission on the school bus. Wald said the risk can be mitigated by distancing students, wearing masks and opening windows.

Board member Bob Green said there is a lot of community pressure to get kids back in schools and neighboring districts are doing it, though not without challenges. He asked what he should base his decision on since the numbers have only worsened since the pandemic started.

Wald said it does not make sense to her to have kids back in school until the epidemic curve starts to come down. She said the most effective thing right now would be applying pressure to stop community spread.

Board member Anne Bauer asked if a staff member who had COVID-19 and recovered would have to quarantine if a close contact tests positive. Wald said that person should be immune for 90 to 120 days.

Board president Annette Ashley asked about mitigating transmission during eating. Wald said students should be spaced six feet apart and not facing each other.

Board member Sean Hyland said if kids under 15 are considered less risk should the district considering having kids through middle school return to buildings. Wald said teenagers are a little harder to control their contacts and they are better equipped for virtual learning.

Board member Bob Hesselbein asked if Wald is aware of the virus mutating. Wald said the virus had a small tendency to mutate but none of the mutations have been thought to have a substantial impact on the virulence.

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