| The Hawk Eye
Burlington students will not be returning to their school buildings Monday, when the district’s approval to teach 100% online was set to expire, and they may continue to learn from home until the start of the new year.
The Burlington School Board on Friday voted 4-2 to apply for a two-week extension for online-only learning. While the state likely will not review the application until next week, schools are allowed a two-day grace period wherein schools can remain online until a decision is made.
“This is gut-wrenching,” board member Darven Kendell said after voting in favor of the motion. “This entire process is very stressful and very taxing, and I know we are all trying to make the best possible choices for our students and staff and community.”
With extended school hours and Friday’s reserved for professional development, there are 10 school days left before winter break begins Dec. 23, with school resuming Jan. 4. If the state approves the district’s third remote learning application, students will be set to pivot back to in-person instruction Dec. 21. The board will discuss whether to apply for another extension at its Dec. 14 meeting.
Alternatively, the board also could meet sometime next week to decide to put students back in school before the two-week period is over depending on how COVID-19 is spreading in Des Moines County’s COVID-19 at that time.
Board members Tom Courtney, Nancy Hoelzen and Dean Vickstrom also voted in favor of Courtney’s motion to stay online, citing concerns over yet unapparent COVID-19 spikes tied to Thanksgiving travel and gatherings.
“We’re going to get the Thanksgiving rush of people dying and being sick, and then we’re going to get the Christmas rush of people dying and being sick,” said Courtney, who has lost friends, including former Iowa Sen. Gene Fraise, to the virus. “I would rather stay online until the Christmas rush of those dying and being sick is over and then see where we’re at.”
Kendell expressed concern about a possible “yo-yo” effect should Des Moines County’s COVID-19 cases rise over the next week.
“Are we going to come back again and say we need to go back online for the next week?” Kendell said. “The yo-yo effect really worries me, and while slow and steady and potentially staying online is not what is desired by many people, maybe that is the safest way to go right now given the predictions of the experts, the level that our local health care is taxed right now, are we going to exponentially enhance and worsen the Christmas surge by sending everyone back to the buildings right now? We don’t know those answers, but I think there are questions we have go to think about.”
Vickstrom said he knows in-person learning is most effective, but he couldn’t justify the benefits as outweighing the risk to individuals’ health.
“I’m really concerned about the illness and the long-term effects,” Vickstrom said. “This is probably the biggest issue we’ve had to face as a board. I hope we look at it from all angles and come up with something that is somewhat workable.”
Board president Joel Sieren did not cast a vote after seeing the motion had majority support, though he did speak in favor of students resuming a hybrid model Monday, even if only for a week, pointing to concerns of not knowing about students’ well-being.
“My concern is going over a month without some of these kids not having a well check — there are some kids that we know aren’t getting meals, that may be in situations that are not ideal,” Sieren said. “We don’t know if they’re all OK. I would be fine coming back for a week, checking in on all the kids, making sure everybody’s fine, and if we have to pivot again, pivot again.”
Board vice president Anika McVay, who was opposed to extending the online learning, spoke passionately in favor of students returning to in-person instruction.
“We have to be able to look at the bigger pictures. We have straight-A students who are struggling. It’s difficult for parents to juggle work, meals and online learning. Teachers are physically exhausted when you run into them in the grocery stores,” McVay said. “We have made concessions to help flatten the curve, and I’m very proud of our school district for doing that, but now it’s our turn to put our students back in school and give them the education that they truly deserve.”
Board member Deborah Hatteberg agreed.
“I’m just so tired of sacrificing the education, and not only the education, but just the well-being of so many students because of the decisions of others, and I personally do not believe that what happens in the off-school hours … I think that’s going to have a much greater impact,” Hatteberg said. “I believe that we are doing everything we can to be safe and we’re making decisions in a consistent manner.”
While students are learning remotely, people still must obey school zone speed limits during posted times as students with individualized education plans requiring in-person instruction still attend school buildings.
The board also approved an amendment to its mask policy that requires non-medical-grade face coverings be worn at nearly all times while in school buildings, even when social distancing can be maintained. Exceptions can be made when the face-covering makes it impossible to complete necessary activities or when they are unnecessary in nature, such as when eating or drinking, during band, when students are actively participating in athletic events and when staff are working alone in an office setting.
Students also may remove their masks during staggered mask breaks granted at the discretion of classroom teachers.
The policy will remain in effect until the board’s second meeting in January, at which point it will be revisited.