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‘We need to bring our students back’: Southwestern prepares for students to return to school five days a week


HAZEL GREEN, Wis.–At its July 8 meeting, the Southwestern School Board, aware that it could change due to COVID-19, approved a request by administration for students to return to school five days a week this fall.

“I personally believe and professionally believe that we need to bring our students back and purchase face shields and hand sanitizing stations to do our best to limit the spread in our schools,” said Superintendent John Costello. “What we can’t control is what our kids and families are doing outside of school, yet our school districts are still left to put a plan in place to mitigate the spread of this virus. It makes it very difficult for school boards and administration because no matter what our plan is somebody is not going to be happy with it. We need to try to fit the needs of all of our students. That is why our administration team has spent time over the past months to go over what it might look like.”

Costello said that he has discussed bussing with his administrative team and with Russ Stratton Buses.

“The cost of socially distancing on buses is not in the cards,” said Costello. “We talked about making them wear masks and doing our best to mitigate the virus.”

Costello and maintenance director Ron Beaver have ordered cleaning supplies: over 50,000 disinfectant wipes, hand sanitizer stations for all of the classrooms and masks. They are also working on ordering face shields and hand sanitizing stations.

Costello also discussed air quality in the rooms. Beaver found the air in the classroom cycles out seven times every hour.

Principals at Southwestern will be working with staff on the procedures and plan.

“Our plan is to social distance as much as possible, and wear masks when we can’t,” said Costello. “We will limit travel inside of the building. We are also looking at teachers moving from classroom to classroom. We are talking about exploring block scheduling for high school.”

Costello said that the district can’t check temperatures every day due to legal liability if they miss a student while checking temperatures.

“If we check temperatures at the door and one day we don’t and somebody gets COVID, we could potentially be liable,” said Costello. “It is because we put a procedure in place.”

School board member Jackie Birkett asked who is held accountable for kids wearing masks.

“Everybody, we are all in it together,” said Costello.

“We need to be realistic,” said board member Storey Dreessens. “If these kids are going to the doctors or the dentists or the orthodontists, they need to wear a mask. For many of these kids, it is not a big deal. My kids know it. If students or their parents want to be taught in school, we will tell them what we recommend. If not, we will provide (a mask) and we recommend that you put one on.”

“If they don’t, do we make them go home or do we keep them in the classroom?” asked Birkett.

Costello said the administration has discussed it and that they would provide virtual learning.

“If a parent doesn’t want them to wear a face mask or a shield, then they will virtually learn,” said Dreessens. “They will figure it out.”

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Costello continued with his plan and discussed what would occur if a student or staff member tests positive. Costello said that the county would need to be involved and he’d hope staff could teach from home.

“If a student in third grade contracts it and it’s just that one cohort then that class would get shut down for 14 days and that class is virtual,” said Costello. “At some point in time, we will be shut down again. That is coming from the health department and the state. It likely wouldn’t be as long, but there’s a possibility that it could happen.”

Costello said there are many unknowns but this at least gives the administration and staff a plan.

“There’s obviously a lot of work to do,” said Costello. “I have had conversations with local districts and we are all planning to have kids come back. I know some staff and some parents are ready to come back and I know some staff and some parents are reluctant to come back. I understand and I empathize with them. I can assure you that as an administration team, we will do the best possible job we can to make sure kids are back at school.”

Birkett asked what the plan was if a teacher was high risk or uncomfortable returning.

“Our plan is to work with those staff members and find out what their limitations are and also work with them to put the best possible system in place for them to educate our kids,” said Costello. “They might have to teach from home. I think some staff members might be apprehensive and filled that survey out because they didn’t know our concrete plans.”

Birkett asked why the school didn’t try a hybrid model of having half the students attend on one day and the other half attend on opposite days.

“I think the impact on our community of having half the kids at home and having to livestream, what does that do for a family that has to work?” asked Costello. “My thought process is I look at the CDC or whatever websites and going back full-time with all students is the highest-risk option as opposed to A and B hybrid plans,” said Birkett. “We are doing the most highest risk activity because we don’t want to impact the families, but don’t you think that if we are the highest risk thing that we will still be virtual at some point anyway.”

“If we have half the students come one day and the other half come a different day, we are still asking our teachers to come in four days a week,” said Dreessens. “We aren’t necessarily saving our staff from being exposed.”

Costello said he put out a staff survey to understand their view on the situation do help guide the district’s plans.


Other business

The board also:

•hired Rhianna Brotzman as head cook.

•approved scheduling the budget hearing and annual meeting for Wednesday, Oct. 21 beginning at 7 p.m.

•approved $51,215.41 in donations given to the school district for the 2019-2020 school year.