Smaller class sizes, flexibility urged for Wisconsin schools

Reopening guidelines for Wisconsin schools released Monday make clear that big changes are in store if and when in-person classes resume.

That includes teachers, staff and students wearing masks, classes with no more than 10 students at a time and schedules where buildings are open as few as two days a week, with the bulk of instruction continuing online only.

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction's 87-page guidance document, dubbed "Education Forward," is not a mandate for Wisconsin's 421 public school districts, 26 independent charter schools and 792 private schools. But it does provide a framework for schools to use as they plan for what instruction, both in the classroom and online, will look like in the fall amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

"The next school year will be likely be different from the learning environment students and teachers have grown accustomed to," state Superintendent Carolyn Stanford Taylor said in a statement.

Flexibility will be key given that a vaccine for COVID-19 likely won't be in broad circulation for 12 to 18 months, the recommendations said. The education department stressed that the guidance, the first comprehensive set of recommendations for reopening in the fall, will be ever-evolving as more is known.

When schools reopen, it is likely that students and staff will be screened for symptoms; social distancing will be in effect in all settings; and there will be isolation and timely removal of students and staff who are displaying symptoms, the guidelines said.

The education department also cautions that another wave of infections could result in changes to operation and school closures. There may be a need for increased mental health support given fear, loss and isolation that can occur, the guidance said, while noting that deaths from COVID-19 are possible — especially among children and adults in high-risk categories.

"COVID-19 remains highly contagious, and people in Wisconsin are still at risk," DHS Secretary Andrea Palm said in a statement. "This guidance is designed to be used in consultation with local and tribal health departments, and we encourage school districts to work with them closely to make the best decisions for their communities."

Among the recommendations: wear masks as much as possible; develop schedules that accommodate physical-distancing recommendations and allow students to move in shifts between in-person and virtual attendance; and be prepared to move completely to virtual learning if there is an outbreak. They also include: considering modified schedules where students go to in-person classes as few as two days a week; limiting class sizes to no more than 10 students; bringing elementary students back first while keeping middle and high school students in virtual learning; rearranging desks; and adding other protections to limit potential exposure.

Schools should be ready for high absentee rates among teachers given the expectation that they stay home if they are not feeling well, the guidance warned. It called for reaching out to retired teachers to help fill gaps.

The guidelines show the "complexity and challenges school leaders face in trying to reopen schools safely this fall," said Dan Rosmiller, spokesman for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards.

A statewide order issued by Palm closing schools expires on June 30. Absent a local order preventing them from reopening after that, the decision on when and how to resume teaching will rest with each local school district.

The state Assembly's Education Committee scheduled a Wednesday hearing to discuss reopening plans. Testimony will be taken from a variety of education stakeholders, including groups representing rural schools, religious and independent schools, the private school voucher program, the group that oversees athletics as well as school administrators and school boards.

As of Sunday, there have been nearly 25,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state with 744 deaths, according to the state Department of Health Services. Of those who got the virus, 78% have recovered and 3% have died with the rest remaining active cases.

You can find the state's full report here.