by ALEXANDRA RETTER
All Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) students will receive their education through a hybrid model of in-person and distance learning when school starts in the fall. The WAPS Board approved the hybrid model in a 5-2 vote at its meeting on Wednesday evening.
In the hybrid model, students will be split into Group A and Group B based on their families to allow students in the same family to go to school on the same weekdays. Group A will attend school in-person on Mondays and Tuesdays, and Group B will go to class in-person on Thursdays and Fridays. Students will participate in distance learning on the days they are not attending school in-person. On Wednesdays, school buildings will receive additional cleaning.
Per state guidance, the hybrid model will include 50-percent capacity and six-foot social distancing rules that will be in place in school buildings and 50-percent capacity rules that will be implemented with transporting students on buses.
Families may choose for their children to take part in distance learning on a full-time basis.
WAPS has characteristics that make it different from districts in other counties with COVID case rates that are similar to Winona County’s, board member Jim Schul, who voted for the hybrid model, said. One of the traits is Washington-Kosciusko and Jefferson Elementary schools not having central dehumidification or air conditioning systems. “The nature of this virus requires good ventilation in order to stymie its spread. I do not believe that we have this in those buildings,” Schul shared. “Also, the nature of this virus requires young children to wear masks all day. Doing so in a poorly ventilated and humid environment for what amounts to nearly seven hours a day, five days a week, is harsh.”
Kindergarten through fourth-grade class sizes established by the board may also be too large to allow teachers to effectively keep track of the health and safety of students and themselves, he noted.
Additionally, with Winona being home to two universities and case rates for those in their 20s being high, taking extra caution with the learning model chosen for the beginning of the school year would be valuable, he said. “The safest route to take this is distance learning. There is no question about that,” Schul noted. “However, there is a very strong and compelling case for why students need to be at school. Students’ social and emotion health ranks at the top of those concerns.”
Board member Steve Schild, who did not vote for the hybrid model, said he is worried that some students may fall behind in the hybrid model with its distance learning portion. “It’s really clear, it’s so clear, it’s cliche, that there’s no one correct answer, and there are many uncertainties,” Schild shared. “But the reason I support at least attempting in-person for those elementary kids is there is one thing we can be certain of, and that is distance learning did not work well for a significant number of students.”
Board member Tina Lehnertz, who did not vote for the hybrid model, also said she does not feel the distance-learning piece of the model would be beneficial for all students.
“I feel like we will do a disservice to our families if we don’t bring them [students] back to school,” Lehnertz stated.
Distance learning was challenging in the spring, board member Michael Hanratty, who voted for the hybrid model, said, but the hybrid model would include in-person and distance learning. The hybrid model would also feature 50-percent building capacity rules, which would support health and safety, he noted. The model would assist with being ready to change learning models if necessary during the school year as well, he stated.
“I keep hearing the hope is the district will stay in the model we start with. To me, hoping is not the best strategy,” Hanratty explained. “My hope is we don’t have an outbreak in Winona. My hope is the COVID numbers keep going down, especially after college students arrive. But that is not a strategy. The best strategy is to remain flexible if we are mandated to switch models. And model three [hybrid learning] would allow teachers to be prepared for both” in-person and distance learning.
Board member Allison Quam, who voted for the hybrid model, noted that she recognizes inequities present in distance learning, hybrid learning and in-person learning, and she acknowledges that finding child care is difficult for families. She expressed concerns about district staff members’ work load and exposure to the virus as well. Educators who teach students music and art may travel between classes and school buildings, for example.
Board chair Nancy Denzer said she was going back and forth between a learning model of in-person learning for elementary students and hybrid learning for secondary students and a learning model of hybrid learning for all students. After several moments of consideration when board members’ votes were taken, she ultimately voted to approve the hybrid model.
Families will receive more information about finalized learning plans by September 1. Plans must be communicated to families at least one week before school starts under state guidance.
The WAPS Board will next meet on Thursday, August 20, at 6 p.m. The meeting may be viewed at https://winonak12mnus.finalsite.com/district/school-board/live-stream.