As COVID-19 cases continue to surge in Douglas County, schools will likely move to remote learning after returning from Thanksgiving break, following an informal decision from the school board Nov. 10.
School board directors expressed a consensus to support the recommendation from Douglas County School District interim Superintendent Corey Wise during the meeting. Wise recommended that the staff plan to notify families of a switch to remote learning five days before Thanksgiving break “if remote is inevitable.”
Wise highlighted continued staffing struggles throughout the district as a major reason for his suggestion of switching to remote learning. With positive cases spiking for both teachers and students, the district is relying more heavily on substitute teachers, who are in high demand throughout the metro area.
On the day of the meeting, the school had its lowest-ever fill rate with 77 teacher positions left unfilled that day, according to the district presentation.
“You can’t have school without teachers,” Wise said.
Wise isn’t optimistic that the district's and the county’s data will turn around by the time the switch would happen.
“I don’t have confidence that we’re going to see a plateau and it’s going to come down,” he said.
His recommendation also includes a plan to return to in-person learning by Jan. 5.
While schools are seeing more positive cases, investigations have shown that the vast majority of those infections are not occurring in school, he said. In most situations, teachers and students are becoming infected outside of school.
These positive infections cause many disruptions, as anyone who had close contact with a person with the virus must quarantine for 14-days.
Wise said that during this time period away from in-person learning, the district will focus on mental health of students.
Wise and multiple board members acknowledged that ideally, they would like to keep in-person learning for all students, but with the current situation, it’s not possible.
“Based on the current COVID rates and what we are required to do to keep our schools open and safe, we really just don’t have the infrastructure and resources we need to make that happen,” director Susan Meek said.
Director Elizabeth Hanson added that she believes the directors’ hands are tied.
“If the transmission is not happening within school … then maybe we need to take a really hard look at when you have homecoming parties and Halloween parties … there are consequences,” she said. “If our community is not willing to have some hard conversations about what we’re willing to sacrifice to keep our kids in schools, then we don’t have a choice than move to remote.”
Director Anthony Graziano expressed disappointment with the plan, but ultimately did not speak up when board President David Ray asked if any directors disagreed with the recommendation.
“This struck me as lacking a lot of consideration for our kids,” he said. “Consideration for mental health, the isolation that remote learning brings … the falling behind, the course loads, the standards that aren’t being met, the fact that for many students, school is a safe place.”
Ray agreed to an extent, expressing concern for the possible negative side effects of switching to remote learning.
“We’ve got a staff that is exhausted, a staff that is stretched thin, employees that are at their breaking point,” Ray said. “We can sit here and say ‘yeah this this makes sense, obviously’ … but at the same time, director Graziano is absolutely right. How do we address the ripple effect of what this does to student learning?”
Hanson added that when teachers and staff are stretched too thin, it has an effect on students.
“We are asking something completely impossible of our staff,” she said. “And we can’t overlook that that ties in directly with the impact on students.”
Board vice president Krista Holtzmann reluctantly voiced her support for the decision.
“I support this recommendation, as heartbreaking as it is,” she said. “I know that none of us want to move in this direction but I think that you’ve shown us that, based on the current data ... this recommendation is somewhat inevitable.”
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