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Sun Prairie, Middleton-Cross Plains districts will start school year all online amid COVID-19 pandemic
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Sun Prairie, Middleton-Cross Plains districts will start school year all online amid COVID-19 pandemic

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Dane County’s two largest suburban school districts are poised to start the school year all online after the Madison School District announced last week it will do the same in response to rising numbers of COVID-19 coronavirus cases locally and nationally.

The Sun Prairie School District announced Monday its 8,475 students will attend school entirely online for the first quarter of the school year. And the Middleton-Cross Plains School Board on Monday evening voted unanimously to begin fully online for the 7,534-student district.

“During the last two weeks, we’ve seen the fall reopening of public schools take center stage in the local, state, and national discussion about the safety of our kids, families, and staff,” Sun Prairie Superintendent Brad Saron said in an email to families. “We’ve indicated from the beginning that the safety of our students, families, and staff was of our highest concern.”

Sun Prairie’s first quarter will run from Sept. 8 to Nov. 2 with staff starting in late August to do more training on teaching children remotely.

When schools closed statewide in March, Saron said online learning in the spring was “in response to a national crisis.” The fall offering, though, will be “a robust student learning structure,” he said.

Sun Prairie students will have whole class and small group online learning on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.

On Wednesdays, students will have independent activities to give staff one day a week to prepare, collaborate and communicate with each other and students and families.

The Middleton-Cross Plains School District’s all-online first quarter also starts Sept. 8. The School Board’s decision to start the year digitally followed a recommendation earlier Monday from district administrators.

“Given the current status of the pandemic and recent increases in cases at the county and state level, we believe this is the safest decision for our students,” the recommendation says.

District superintendent Dana Monague said schools have been given a nearly “impossible decision,” but “health and safety must be prioritized.” She noted safety can’t be ensured with face-to-face learning.

The district will re-evaluate in early October whether it can move to a hybrid approach, which uses both in-person and online learning, for the second quarter. Monague said the district will continue to evaluate whether a change is warranted throughout the school year, at least every 30 days.

Similar to Sun Prairie, the Middleton-Cross Plains District will use Wednesdays as a preparation day where students continue online learning, but independently and not in teacher-led classes on video chat platforms like Zoom.

The district received more than 200 written comments on whether to start school online, with 65 requesting face-to-face learning, 32 wanting a hybrid and 85 requesting virtual learning. Forty-three had a variety of other comments.

The public comments were not read at Monday’s meeting and were also not posted online. Citizens could not comment via video at the online meeting, which was held via Zoom, because of technological limitations, District Spokesman Perry Hibner said.

“We believe there is real value in citizen comments, but there are challenges with doing so in a virtual setting,” Hibner said.

Hibner said an attorney for the district confirmed officials were not required to read the comments aloud; rather, they just needed to indicate how many were received and what position they supported. Members of the board said they took the written comments into account.

Other districts

The Edgerton School District and Waunakee School District both said Monday they expect to settle on a fall plan by July 27. Administrators of Deerfield’s schools are aiming for an Aug. 3 deadline to decide on a plan that aligns with data and guidance from Public Health Madison and Dane County.

The Wisconsin Heights School District expects to choose an operating plan by July 28.

“The health and well-being of students and staff is our primary consideration,” the district wrote in response to an inquiry from the Wisconsin State Journal.

The Madison School District said Friday its nearly 27,000 students would be learning online for at least the first quarter, a decision more districts are beginning to make as coronavirus counts rise.

In Dane County, there have been 3,529 confirmed cases of the coronavirus as of Sunday with nearly 70% of the cases coming in the past month.

Also on Monday, the teachers unions of five of Wisconsin’s largest school districts sent a letter to Gov. Tony Evers and the heads of the state’s education and public health departments urging an online start to the year.

“We represent over 10,000 public education workers from across the state, responsible for educating over 160,000 public school students,” the letter from the leaders of the Green Bay, Kenosha, Madison, Milwaukee and Racine unions said. “We are calling on you to guarantee a science-informed, safe and equitable school reopening for the 2020-2021 school year.”

Survey results

Like other school systems across the state and country, both Sun Prairie and Middleton-Cross Plains — the county’s second- and third-largest districts, respectively, behind Madison — surveyed families and staff about the fall semester.

Sun Prairie’s survey of staff and parents found a majority of both groups supported continued online learning.

Of the more than 4,000 parents or guardians who responded, 61% either agreed or strongly agreed with a question asking whether they supported further online learning until the district is able to implement safety procedures and/or the local public health department indicates it’s safe to return to “normal.”

COVID-19 cases and deaths

On the other end, nearly a quarter of parents said they strongly disagreed with further online learning.

Support for remaining online was higher among the 808 staff members who responded: 84% either agreed or strongly agreed with more online learning.

In late June, Middleton-Cross Plains gauged the thoughts of parents on the fall semester in a survey.

If the district had guidance from local or state officials on when it is safe to reopen school with cautionary measures in place, 54% of the approximately 2,800 parents who responded to the survey said they would send their children to school on Sept. 1 but would have some concerns.

Thirty percent of parents said they would send their children to school with no concerns, 9% wouldn’t send their children but could change their mind with additional safety precautions, and 6% of parents said they wouldn’t feel safe having their children in school at all.

State Journal reporters Emily Hamer and Chris Hubbuch contributed to this report.

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