The Columbia School Board decided at a special meeting last Wednesday to continue using its hybrid model of attendance for at least the near future.
It made that decision largely based on the advice of Monroe County Health Department Administrator John Wagner, who noted the county and region are seeing an increase in cases and the holiday season is approaching.
“Things were looking positive that we would be able to go back in, but now they have taken a turn,” Columbia Superintendent Chris Grode said.
Under the district’s current approach, students in fifth grade and lower attend school in-person every day, while students in grades six and above attend in-person twice a week and remotely three days a week.
In September, the subcommittee of parents, teachers, administrators, Wagner and school board members focused on returning to school like normal thought it would be able to recommend more students attending in-person at this point, but circumstances have changed.
“Since then, the number of students quarantining has increased,” Grode noted. “We have a significant number at the high school and at (Eagleview Elementary).”
Although it did not recommend bringing more students back, that subcommittee resolved that the district will have a plan “to support and identify” all students struggling in any way with the hybrid schedule by the next meeting, Grode said.
Similarly, it will also investigate hiring more teachers to have some dedicated to only teaching remotely, allowing more time for in-person education.
Board members Tammy Hines and Greg Meyer, who serve on the subcommittee, also brought up issues with reopening fully.
Hines pointed out one obstacle is social distancing will be impossible if all students are in school every day.
“The concern is when are we going to be able to go back and how we’re going to make that change,” she said.
Grode said part of the issue in that regard is students who are supposed to be quarantined from being exposed to someone with COVID-19 are still spending time with friends and going out, making contact tracing even more difficult.
“It’s counterproductive and it’s not assisting us with our ability to get kids back in school,” he said.
Meyer, who has been an advocate for having “all the kids in (school) all the time,” even said that goal is difficult to reach.
“As the superintendent alluded to, though, with social distancing not being possible with full classrooms, if one student gets sick we have to quarantine so many,” he said. “The problem is it multiplies.”
“I think the risk to return to school is minimal for the kids, but the problem is we’re trying to prevent this disease from spreading,” Meyer added. “When you do that and you have to quarantine at so many levels, it becomes impossible.”
Grode agreed with that assessment, saying that having students frequently switch between in-person and remote learning is not an effective education strategy.
Board member Lisa Schumacher also suggested eliminating classes like band and choir only during the pandemic to facilitate having students back in school.
“I’m not against band and choir,” she stressed. “I’m just saying during a pandemic, is there something different we can do to focus on core classes?”
That proposal did not gain much traction.
“I think band and choir are part of that mental and emotional development for kids, and to take that away from them would be quite an impact,” board member Karen Anderson said. “And there’s kids who go on to be music majors.”
While it is not bringing more students to school right now, board president Scott Middelkamp said not going backwards is still a step in the right direction. Grode and multiple board members repeatedly emphasized the goal is to get more children back in schools.
“Unless the state directs us, the health department directs us, we will not be moving backward,” Grode promised. “Our goal is to be moving forward and get more students in.”
“We all want to do what’s best for the kids, but we can’t go against the recommendations of the health department,” Hines agreed.
As for when those recommendations could change, Wagner predicted January might see a drop in the spread of the virus.
“Right now, we feel like with the holidays coming up, next semester would probably be the best time for a change,” Grode said.