Columbia in-person school debate

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The Columbia School Board unanimously voted Thursday night to increase the option for in-person attendance to the highest level since the pandemic began. 

Starting Feb. 16, all students in fifth grade and below can attend from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Friday. 

Meanwhile, all pupils in sixth grade and above can attend school in person from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. 

Those who want to learn remotely can still select that option.

“This is another step forward,” school board president Scott Middelkamp said. “We’ve been trying to make incremental steps forward to get students back in class.” 

Two Columbia High School teachers pushed back against this move during the public comments portion of the meeting. 

Tim Gagen, a social studies and history teacher at CHS for over 20 years, said he wanted the board to consider each school individually. 

He pointed out that social distancing will not be possible in CHS classrooms with the new plan and that a Jan. 13 survey of CHS teachers found that 72 percent wanted to continue that hybrid approach. 

“It is my hope that the board is taking into consideration science and not making emotionally-based decisions,” said Gagen, who pointedly mentioned he bought a shower curtain to help put a barrier between him and students. “If we cannot trust science, what can we trust?” 

Carrie Clayton, a CHS science teacher, echoed Gagen’s points about social distancing and the teachers’ preference. 

“We are not OK. We feel as though our professionalism and expertise as educators is not being taken into consideration while the board plans for the future of our careers and the education of our young adults in this community,” she said. 

Clayton also argued that a key reason there has not been much spread of the novel coronavirus in schools is that social distancing has been maintained. 

Columbia Superintendent Chris Grode said Monroe County Health Department Administrator John Wagner supported the plan. 

“I’d say Mr. Wagner was pleased to hear of our plans,” Grode relayed.

“I believe that the step we’re in right now, all in, is the right choice,” Grode added. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study Tuesday that found low in-school spread of COVID-19 when students were in small groups, social distanced as much as possible, wore masks and quarantined when needed. 

A trio of CDC researchers published another study Tuesday reaching the same conclusion, while also noting there appears to be greater risk of spreading the virus at athletic events. 

Grode also admitted, however, that there will be more quarantining with more students in school without social distancing. 

“We’re going to have to quarantine people,” Grode said. “People are going to continue to contract this virus.” 

Board member Greg Meyer, a proponent of returning to school like normal, pointed out students will not be forced to return if they feel unsafe and argued they would be safer there. 

“It’s been my experience that the kids are not social distancing outside of school,” he said. “They’re using it to get together. They’re out, not wearing masks. Even if they weren’t able to social distance, I think they’d be safer in school than out in the general public.”

Board member Karen Anderson expressed some reservations about the change before voting for it, saying the feedback she has received has been positive for the current hybrid attendance model and questioning how the district’s employees will be protected with more students in the buildings for longer than there have been in almost a year. 

“I’d say my biggest concern for any group right now is our senior class and making sure they are all going to be ready to graduate and able to graduate,” Anderson said. 

Assistant Superintendent Courtney Castelli said the district is looking to provide more safety options to teachers, and Grode stressed teachers must protect themselves. 

“The health department has made it quite clear: the transmission from student to teacher is really not occurring because the teachers are staying six feet away,” he said. “That’s the key thing. You need to wear your masks, and you need to stay at least six feet away from the group for the teachers to not quarantine.”

Board member Lisa Schumacher, a consistent advocate of having students back in school as much as possible, expressed disappointment at only 28 percent of CHS teachers currently wanting all students back in the classroom full-time. 

“I find it very sad that 72 percent of our high school teachers do not want our kids all back in when we have the younger grades (where) those teachers are close to the kids, side-by-side doing activities and helping them with stuff. I find that very sad for our district,” she said. 

The board does not plan for this to be the last change it makes to attendance this year, per Grode. 

“The goal is to move (in the) fourth quarter (to) all in, all day,” Grode said. “By that time… we should have our vaccinations complete and have a better idea of how our contact tracing is going.” 

Also at the meeting, the board set the CHS graduation date for May 15 at 1 p.m. The ceremony will be outdoors, so it will take place May 16 at 1 p.m. if weather does not permit it on the originally scheduled date. 

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