Wheatland J1 School District (Wheatland Center School) Board approves reopening plan

The Wheatland J1 School District (Wheatland Center School) Board approved a return to school plan at Wednesday’s regular board meeting.

The plan calls for four-day-a-week in school face-to-face instruction for 4K to fourth grade students and other grade levels following an A-B schedule that will have students in the building for face-to-face instruction two days and virtual learning the other days.

All students can also choose all virtual learning.

Face coverings will be required in the school building unless proper social distance can be maintained, school officials said.

“Hopefully this is temporary,” said board President Christopher Serak. “We want to get kids back to school, but we want to keep them here too … It is a balance of protecting everybody as much as we can.”

Under the A/B option to be followed by 5th-8th grade, students will be assigned to Monday/Tuesday or Thursday/Friday in-person learning at the school. The other three days they will use virtual learning.

The split schedule was necessary given the number of students in 5th-8th grades, said district administrator Martin McGinley. The prospect of having 25 plus students in some classrooms was judged not safe or effective, at least at the beginning of the year.

“It really came down to we didn’t have the resources,” McGinley said.

Re-purposing some spaces in the building means the younger grades will be able to have about 13 students in a room, McGinley said.

All students will have some virtual learning, which is important to establish in case a change in the COVID-19 situation forces full virtual learning during the year, McGinley said.

All students will be grouped in cohorts of about 25 students. As much as possible, students will only associate at school with their cohort, to limit exposure.

Special classes like physical education, art, music and band will be maintained in some form. Just how has not been decided yet, McGinley said.

“We have a really creative team,” McGinley said of the special subjects teachers, adding many activities will likely be done in the home classroom.

As for band, McGinley said “We are going to have kids playing instruments.”

With face coverings being required for all students and staff when social distancing can’t be maintained, the school will provide cloth face coverings. Students and staff can also wear their own face coverings.

As other districts have also said, bus transportation presents one of the most difficult situations to address social distancing. Buses will have assigned seating with family members sitting together. Buses will load according to the seating chart, to limit students walking by other students. Adults and students will wear face coverings on the bus. The buses will be disinfected between routes.

McGinley encouraged parents that can transport children with cars to do so.

“If parents can transport, that is helpful,” McGinley said.

The vote to approve the plan was unanimous.

About 45 people were in the audience for the meeting. Four people from the audience commented using the regular citizens comments procedure. Several others also made statements or asked questions, which the board allowed. All people speaking from the floor appeared to be critical of the plan coming up short of fully traditional face-to-face instruction five days a week.

“We cant be afraid of this,” said resident Greg Richter. “The statistics we see now are extremely skewed.”

Other speakers addressed concerns over a lack of socialization for students and concerns about the face covering requirement.

All board members also spoke individually explaining their thinking on the plan.

Board member Heidie Dunn said school staff will be finding appropriate opportunities for children to take off face coverings for a while.

“I don’t think anyone expects the kids will be in a mask six or seven hours a day,” Dunn said.

“These practices are becoming the norm,” said board member Randy Ebertowski. “This is the direction our society is going. I would love to have my son here five days a week. It’s not the safe approach.”

Said board member Rachel Crane: “I don’t know that any of us are crazy excited to send our kids back to school with face masks,”adding that it is worth it to protect the health of teachers and staff. “This has not been easy on any of us. We know it’s not going to work for everyone.”

Board Vice President Kenneth Humphrey pointed out the plan approved Wednesday is a starting point, which could be modified based on experience.

“We’re looking for those signs that things are improving.” Humphrey said. “This is our starting point”

More details on the plan are available here.

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