The Madison School Board approved a plan on Tuesday for how Madison's public schools should reopen this fall while dealing with the public-health threat created by COVID-19. However, many persons attending the special meeting knew -- and some said so -- that protecting children and staff and running schools will prove more difficult than putting plans on papers.
Superintendent Joel Jorgenson told the meeting attendees that he couldn't say at this time at which level of operations Madison Central schools would open on Aug. 20, the first day of classes. Madison Central and other South Dakota school districts had closed their buildings in March 2020 due to the dangers from the novel coronavirus.
In the plan's written introduction, district officials stated that they understood families would face day-care and work-schedule challenges depending on whether the schools would conduct classroom or online instruction.
They continued, "We ask that you prepare as best you can for the different levels that may arise during the school year....However, no one knows where we will be at with cases in our community at any given time, so we will adjust as needed."
About 28 persons plus board members and school staff attended the special school board meeting, in which the only specific agenda item for consideration was the district's reopening plan.
During the first part of the meeting, Jorgenson briefed the attendees on a four-stage "level" plan that outlines how Madison Central schools will operate depending on the number of positive coronavirus cases detected in the community. The plan consists of Level I (green) with low to moderate risk of COVID-19 infection, Level II (yellow) with increased risk, Level III (red) with high risk and Level IV (blue) with a declining risk.
Level I operations would have schools holding classroom instruction with no confirmed cases in the schools and either declining or flat COVID-19 cases in the county and surrounding community. The schools would take precautionary measures such as cleaning and social-distancing and recommend the use of face masks.
Level II operations would include classroom instruction with mandatory face mask use after finding a limited number of coronavirus cases in the schools and a steady case number or slow increases in COVID-19 detection in the community. The school staffs would also continue coronavirus spread-prevention measures.
Level III would go into effect when a rise or spike in COVID-19 cases occurs that affects students and school staff. The students would stay at home and use distance-learning methods.
Level IV operations would provide the schools with plans to move back into classrooms from distance-learning after consistent declines in positive cases in the community.
At the start of the school year, students in junior kindergarten through 12th grade will receive assignments in groups A and B. At the start of Level IV operations, Group A students would have classroom lessons on Mondays and Tuesdays, and Group B would study online on those same days. On Wednesdays, school staffs would provide online assistance, and maintenance personnel would perform cleaning. On Thursdays and Fridays, Group B students will attend classroom instruction, and Group A will perform online instruction.
During Level IV operations, the school administration would decide whether to move to Level II or Level III operations according to the number of positive cases in the community. Jorgenson said the transition time at Level IV would probably last two weeks but the Level IV phase could grow longer.
According to Jorgenson, the current emphasis for himself and school staff centered on tracking COVID-19 case numbers in each of the schools. However, Jorgenson said the administration would also track community infection numbers with help from the South Dakota Department of Health and the Madison hospital/clinic.
One male attendee told the school board that he has worked with children during Madison's summer sports program. He said the implementation of safety guidelines appeared easier on paper than in actual practice, including the emphasis on social distancing.
For families that might require distance-learning for their students due to health concerns or other reasons, Madison Central will conduct distance-learning sessions at the family's request through a service called Edgenuity. The school district will ask the families to use the online option for a semester at a time for high school students and a quarter at a time for elementary and middle school students.
Jorgenson said the parents could make distance-learning requests when they fill out their student registration forms in the coming weeks. Jorgenson added that Madison Central would provide a computer for each of the distance-learning students.