Taylor Scott, Managing Editor
On August 12 the River Valley School Board met, in its last meeting before the school year starts, to discuss masking, new COVID-19 protocols and more, before ultimately stopping short of requiring students and staff to wear masks to start the year.
Masking Public Comments
Ahead of its decision on masking for the start of the school year, the board heard from six residents during public comment. Four in favor of making masks optional and two in favor of starting the school year with masks being mandatory.
Rebecca Weidner, of Plain, spoke first to request that the board make masking optional, saying that the board needed to more strongly consider local data rather than state or national data.
“Practicing a one-size-fits-all model is not freedom and it also does not consider what is happening in our community,” said Weidner. “Spring Green is not Dane County, Spring Green is not New York City and Spring Green really isn’t representative of what’s happening in our nation as a whole.”
Caressa Brandenburg, of Arena, said she has three students within the River Valley School District and that she was in favor of making masks optional. Brandenburg spoke of her experience working in an elementary school in the past year and said she observed elementary students practicing poor hygiene that she believed was exacerbated by the masks, saying they were often “wet” or “crusty” by the end of the day.
“I don’t think that we can apply the same rules as us adults wearing masks to the children,” said Brandenburg. “They just don’t keep their masks as clean and as safe as we do.”
Eva Iausly, an 8th grade student at River Valley Middle School and daughter of board member Fred Iausly, was the first speaker to suggest that the district should start the school year wearing masks.
Eva Iausly said she doesn’t enjoy wearing masks, but suggested starting the school year with masks to ensure the school can hold events and remain in person, saying in-person learning worked best for her.
“I also don’t want to even think about not having Homecoming again as we love to celebrate our school pride,” said Eva Iausly.
Melissa Hohneke, of Plain, said she has two students in the district and supported masks being optional. She said she kept her kids home last year and that her daughter has health conditions that included being unable to understand speech without seeing lips moving and has concerns learning letters and numbers will be hard to learn with masks for students with disabilities.
“It’s very hard to learn that way,” said Hohneke. “Last year was a really hard year and I think that having the masks as optional is very helpful for the students.”
Grace Stanton spoke next, saying masks are a “drag” but suggesting that the school year start with masks mandatory for 60 days and then reevaluating for the next 60 days. Citing experts with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Stanton said that masking and social distancing are working and warned that the situation is evolving.
“I’m thinking I don’t want to roll a dice with my kids,” Stanton said, sharing that she thought the elementary school did a wonderful job last year when masks were mandatory.
Lynn Erickson rounded out public comment, sharing that she has a son with special needs in the district and described a situation that happened in October 2020 where she found a mask in her son’s backpack that she described as “dirty” after asking his teachers that he not be masked because he can’t communicate how he feels.
“I told the teacher ‘do not mess with my son,’” said Erickson, holding up the mask for the board to see. “This isn’t healthy. I don’t know how long it was on his face, he can’t speak, he couldn’t tell me if he had a headache, if he couldn’t breathe at all, if he wasn’t getting enough oxygen.”
Erickson said she supports others’ choices to mask or not mask but called social distancing and masking mandates “socially, emotionally damaging and psychologically damaging” for children as she described another one of her sons being fearful of death last September when he came down with a cold. Erickson also said children need to see the faces of teachers so they can trust them.
Masks optional vs. mandated
Instructional Model for the 2021-22 School Year
The largest item of contention on the school board agenda for action was the Instructional Model for the 2021-22 School Year. Last year the district created a hybrid, in-person and virtual model and mandated masks on campus for much of the school year. The board decided the instructional model to be followed for the 2021-22 school year would differ.
District Administrator Loren Glasbrenner said that he worked with the other administrators within the district and the school nurses to develop a model that will provide in-person instruction to all students, following the school calendar, five days a week.
“We believe students need to be in school,” said Glasbrenner.
“…this will not go well if people send sick children to school…”River Valley School District Administrator Loren Glasbrenner
The district will not offer a hybrid model with synchronous virtual instruction as an option for families seeking a virtual model or for students home from school voluntarily isolating or out sick.
Families seeking a virtual format were encouraged by the district to utilize the Rural Virtual Academy (RV @RVA) through that was previously approved as a consortium agreement.
Glasbrenner said the district will follow guidance from the CDC, DHS, and local health officials to advise its decisions.
“Conditions, similar to last year, are ever-changing, and we will remain responsive,” said Glasbrenner. “We will adapt when county/state/federal mandates are provided to our district as we safely provide the best education possible for all students.”
The plan proposed by administration to the board would make face coverings and masking optional (recommended, if unvaccinated) to start the school year but would follow certain data and thresholds to react with open communication and possible mandates depending on conditions.
Students and staff would be free to mask at their discretion, but the plan would not mandate masks unless a specific school site met a 5% threshold of active, confirmed COVID cases.
“So that there is a way to put masking in place when it is needed, but not to use it as a preventative, but as a way to respond to the virus as needed.”River Valley School District Administrator Loren Glasbrenner
“We want families to be very careful with symptoms, this will not go well if people send sick children to school and I say that really clearly,” said Glasbrenner. “Symptoms have to be kept in the home environment and for this to work, we trust that families will follow through with that.”
The plan doesn’t average district-wide data or county/community data when determining if a threshold is met. The data considered is specific to school sites, building by building. Glasbrenner gave the example that 20 positive COVID cases would be needed in a building of 400 people to trigger the mandatory mask mandate.
Glasbrenner said that the administrators struggled with what data to use, as they felt county data was not representative of what was happening within the district.
“Not until 5% of that entire building’s population had a positive COVID [result] would we ask that masking be mandated,” said Glasbrenner.
Glasbrenner said he presented the plan to the “Sauk County Nursing Staff Committee” on Aug. 12.
“Whereas they wish we would follow their plan and of course be masked, they did say that they found this gradient scale of a progression of things better than just saying ‘mask optional.’ Like they looked at this as a way that could be sustainable decision-making for our district and I found that to be like, ‘Okay I think I might be kind of on the right track,’” said Glasbrenner. “I’m not sure it’s the exact answer that we’ll come up with at the end of all of this, but I think we’re going in the right direction and I found that promising.”
Also new this year is requiring students to stay at home based on a symptoms-based model. Last school year, students that were deemed “close contacts” of COVID-positive individuals were required to quarantine for a set amount of time. This year, families of students that are deemed “close contacts” will be notified by the district as they were last year, but will not be required to quarantine unless they exhibit symptoms.
Glasbrenner and High School Principal Darby Blakley emphasized that parents could choose to take their student out of school to monitor symptoms after a close contact and that the updated protocol gives families more choice.
Board members Kiley Cates and Deb Nelson expressed concerns that the new protocols were being informed by last year’s school data and that the landscape had changed.
“That’s my concern, we don’t have the data on the Delta variant like we do on the previous one,” said Nelson.
Board member Fred Iausly expressed support for using internal data to inform the district’s decisions, but expressed hesitancy about starting the school year without any data.
“We have no data to make these decisions to use this metric on that first day or first week of school, I mean we would build that over a corrective time,” said Fred Iausly. “I guess I’m just very concerned that we just don’t have any internal numbers when we start this thing to then make these decisions. If we find that our infectious rate is low to moderate, it makes sense to me to not have a mandate, sure, but how do we know that and then to come in and then find out, ‘oh wow we’re at seven percent?’ That’s kind of like closing the gate after the cows have left the barn.”
Fred Iausly said he would be more comfortable if the district started the school year with two to three weeks of requiring masks while they collect the internal data.
“I would be much more comfortable if we start a little more cautious and collect the data,” Fred Iausly said.
Board member Sara Young suggested that using the language of masks being “recommended” would be better than “optional” but that she had concerns about the new close contact protocol as well.
“I have a problem with this to not have contact tracing and isolation of close contact students,” said Young. “I can’t get behind it personally, it’s an ideology of my own that schools serve as a hub of public health and because this virus is transmissible we’re in a pandemic we have an obligation to mitigate secondary stress.”
Blakley brought up that students will most likely be mingling maskless outside of school.
“Why are we imposing a mandate in the only place here where they don’t have a mandate anywhere else?” asked board member Jeff Maier in response regarding the lack of a state or county mandate.
As discussion continued, Cates made a motion to “reinstate mandatory, universal masking while in building starting Monday [Aug. 16], to be followed by a review in three weeks after the first day of school to see where our internal district driven data meets our county driven data. When the district data meets the moderate range as determined by our district mapping, we will become mass recommended. If at any point the data falls above the moderate transmission rate moderate transmission the district defaults to universal masking. This is to be reviewed for possible discontinuation following eligibility of vaccination of children ages 5 to 11 years old.”
After stating the motion a friendly amendment was added to include contact tracing and isolation following close contact. The motion was seconded by Fred Iausly, but failed to gain a majority of support upon voting.
“I don’t see why we couldn’t just count the kids with COVID on the first day,” said Young. “If that’s over five percent we give kids masks.”
Young made a motion to accept the plan, contingent on changing the language to “masks recommended” from “masks optional.” The motion failed among intense discussion.
Board member Sarah Carstensen then made the motion again to accept the plan, with the language to “masks recommended” from “masks optional.” The motion was seconded by Maier.
Jennings, Maier, Carstensen, Minich and Bettinger voted in favor of the motion. Cates, Fred Iausly, Nelson, Young opposed. The plan was approved with the changes to language first proposed by Young.
Masking on student transportation
The board took action on a Policy Committee recommendation on Policy #728: Wearing Masks and Face Coverings as masking is required on all school transportation due to a federal mandate.
“There is a federal mandate that’s gotten a lot of press around transportation and federal transportation guidelines include public transportation, which includes school buses,” said Gladbrenner. “At this time there’s a federal mandate that there is masking on our school buses and so anybody getting transportation from the River Valley School District is asked to wear a mask on the bus and that’s not a part of our decision-making process, that’s a part of a federal mandated process that will be reviewed September 15th.”
The policy was approved unanimously.
Statement after the meeting
In a statement sent out to families this week, available online, Glasbrenner outlined the plan the board approved, calling it a phased approach akin to layering up for winter.
“As we get more cases in our schools, we will add layers of protection,” said Glasbrenner. “The administrative team has deeply studied data, CDC, DHS, and DPI guidelines, county communication, and parent feedback. As many of you know, our local community spread in the area has been low all summer, but we have to be prepared in case there are spikes in cases.”
The statement then outlined the phases: BLUE represents low transmission, YELLOW represents moderate transmission, ORANGE represents substantial transmission, and RED represents high transmission.
“Our School Board approved this approach utilizing a set number of positive cases per day, per school,” said Glasbrenner. “For example, if there are no reported cases, we will start the first day of school at the BLUE level at all three schools. But if within the first few days, let’s say our high school has multiple positive cases, we would notify students, staff and families that the following day, the River Valley High School would be switching from our BLUE phase to our YELLOW phase.”
The statement then outlined its ten-point “layers of protection,” ranging from: face coverings being recommended, to staying home when sick, to strategic cohorting, to possible on-site testing with parent permission, to physical changes in environment, to vaccinations (while stating COVID vaccination is not required, but has been recommended by the CDC, WI DHS and Sauk, Richland, and Iowa County Health Departments), to hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette, to cleaning and disinfecting, signage and communication and finally to following guidelines on isolation, with only symptomatic and ill students being required to quarantine out of school.
Glasbrenner said the plan will be revisited as necessary, based on data.
“We understand that we have community members, families, students and staff members who may feel we should be doing things differently. This is not a perfect plan—and to our knowledge, there is no perfect plan that everyone will agree on,” said Glasbrenner. “The pandemic has taught us many things, and I am excited to welcome everyone back to school. Never has the old saying, ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’ been more appropriate than now.”
The board took action to hire Whitney Bindl as Grade 1 teacher to replace Heather Obershaw, who transferred within the district. Bindl holds an Elementary Education/Social Studies degree from Augsburg College, a Masters of Education from Saint Mary’s University and a Reading 316 Certification from Viterbo University. According to the district’s hiring summary, Bindl has a strong literacy background and brings 13 years of experience as a K/1 teacher and literacy coach. The position will be starting at a full time equivalency (FTE) of 100% and $56,000 salary.
District administrators reported that they were getting ready for the school year to start, with an open house upcoming for the elementary school and high school sports practices starting.
Jennings also thanked River Valley School District Administrative Assistant Paula Wedige for 25 years of service to the district.
“There’s not enough ‘thank you’s’ in my vocabulary to tell her how much we appreciate her and everything she does for our district behind the scenes,” said Jennings. “Nobody really sees how much she does for us. We really appreciate you.”
Other items taken up by the board
- The board approved a 2021-22 PSLO (Police School Liaison Officer) Services agreement for the upcoming school year. The district will make a payment of $14,400 based on a $20.00 per hour part time wage to the Spring Green Police Department on an annual basis for 20 hours per week during the school year.
- The board approved the 2021-22 All Staff Employee Handbook. Any changes had been addressed at other meetings and were consolidated.
- The board accepted the following gifts: the Athletic Booster Club donated $2,003 for a 10×20 EZ Up Tent to be used by the Track & Field and Cross Country Teams; $3,000 from Athletic Booster Club for East Gym upgrades, painting, and matting; a drone valued at $350 from the Scott Schuerman Estate for district use; $100 from Bethany Helmich for school supplies for families in need.
- The board approved 1st readings of policies on: Distribution of Electronic and Printed Material, Academic Honors and High School Laude System, Organization for Instruction, School Day, Testing Programs of English Language Learner (ELL) Students, Testing of English Language Learner (ELL) Limited English Proficiency (LEP) Students, Limited English Proficiency (LEP) Program, Selection of Instructional Materials, Foster Care Children, Student Transportation Services, Employment References and Verification (Aiding and Abetting Sexual Abuse), Employee Compensation – Unexpected or Extraordinary Circumstances.
- The board heard a 2020-2021 Budget update. Krey reported that the budget actuals were close to being finalized, with a roughly $60,000 surplus expected, when the district had previously been projecting a $29,000 deficit.
The meeting is viewable online on the district YouTube page.
COVID-19 information and numbers related to the school district will be updated daily here.