Green Bay Area Public School District Superintendent Stephen Murley stepped into a new role and school year forced to make what he describes as “the best bad choice available to us.”
Ultimately, the district decided to begin the 2020-21 school year with an all-virtual model. School districts throughout Northeast Wisconsin have found themselves in the same position. The choices they’ve made range from virtual to in-person models and everything between.
Appleton Area School District announced in mid-August it would also conduct all learning virtually. At press time, other districts, including Sheboygan, Kaukauna, Menasha, Waupaca, Marinette and Fond du Lac plan to offer various types of blended models, many of which include elementary students attending five days a week. Still others, including Kimberly, Neenah and Sturgeon Bay, planned to offer in-person instruction five days a week with modifications in place and options for parents to select online learning for their children.
The disparity of the choices seems to mirror the uncertainty the virus has sown, with each district aiming to make the best decision possible, often with too little information. That was the situation Murley, who was named superintendent in March, says district leaders and school board members faced in Green Bay.
While Murley says he works with a “wonderful team of people with expertise in teaching,” they’re not public health experts. GBAPS leaders have looked externally to the state and county for that support. While public health officials gave them data, they hadn’t, as of mid-August, provided the gating criteria Murley says was needed for deciding when it would be safe to bring kids back to school.
“Given the current community transmission rate that’s out there right now, we were really concerned that if we try to get aggressive and bring students in, that we would find within a very short period of time, that we are sending kids back out, and we don’t want to find ourselves in that position,” Murley says.
At the same time, Murley says having kids in school is the best option for everyone, and any other arrangement is less than optimal. With in-person not a viable option initially, the district is aiming to create as smooth a continuum as possible — from off site to blended and blended to onsite.
Like every other district, Green Bay was dropped unceremoniously into exclusive online learning last March. Since then, staff members have refined processes in a way Murley hopes will make for an improved experience for students and families.
GBAPS is working with teachers to develop novel and creative ways to use virtual platforms to keep kids engaged and learning. For example, social and emotional learning is vital for elementary students, so teachers and pupils will gather each morning to connect in a virtual setting, Murley says.
A typical day may include a combination of real-time instruction and independent activities in which students are putting pencil to paper or doing a physical activity. In addition, some elements may be pre-recorded for students to access on their own multiple times if needed or with a parent present.
Students will have access to needed hardware as well as a mobile hotspot tool called Kajeet for those who don’t have internet service.
Murley acknowledges the difficulty the situation creates for many parents and students and says empathy will help provide a way through the challenges. “It’s really that forgiveness and tolerance. If we all have a little more of that, it will make life a lot easier,” he says.
Embracing new options
Jeff Dickert, agency administrator for CESA 7, says his organization has been providing COVID-19 support and resources to school districts throughout its coverage area that includes 38 school districts stretching from Washington Island in Door County to Cedar Grove/Belgium in Sheboygan County.
CESA 7 has brought in experts to provide guidance on issues such as wearing face masks and employment law. It’s also offered training sessions on multiple topics including creating 100-day plans and helped establish virtual partnerships, including Tooling U-SME, which offers online curriculum for tech ed classes.
Dickert says CESA 7 has long offered virtual tools and until recently, they hadn’t gained a lot of traction. Schools have begun experimenting more and found many of the resources work well.
“In person is still the best, but it’s not always allowable. With that now, we’ve seen we can operate in a virtual world, and if we’re really cognizant of it and want to be really good at it, we can be,” he says.
Nikki Kiss, executive director of Inspire Sheboygan County, says her organization has found some surprise benefits of turning to more virtual options to connect students to employers. Founded in 2013 as a collaboration between schools and employers, it became a tool for the entire New North region in 2018.
Kiss says the organization had long considered virtual options but always thought in-person was best. At the same time, she says she’s discovered the reach with in-person-only options was limited. That was a problem, as Inspire aims to reach a diverse population.
“When we were forced to make things virtual, what we found is it engaged a much larger audience because of the fact that it wasn’t a big to-do to take kids out of school and travel to a company,” Kiss says.
Making the first connection virtually can break down some barriers, Kiss says. It’s often less intimidating for students and businesses alike. It also allows Inspire to play a greater role in guiding processes and conversations more than relying mostly on employers to do so.
“I think what this has allowed us to do is add a baby step in the process that will likely drive more steps into the next level (of having students meet employers in person),” Kiss says.