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Polson teachers share concerns over return to 4 or 5-day school week

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POLSON – Several Polson teachers expressed concern about returning to four- or five-day in-school education – a plan that may be launched as early as Oct. 5 – during the Polson School Board’s regular meeting Sept. 14. 

The board met in the Polson High School auditorium. Currently, all Polson schools are adhering to an A-B model, with students whose last names begin with A-K attending class Mondays and Tuesdays, and those whose last names start with L-Z attending Wednesdays and Thursdays. All students are expected to learn remotely when they’re not physically in school. 

The district also offers a remote-learning option that’s currently serving about 20 percent of the student population. 

One kindergarten teacher at Cherry Valley Elementary told board members that mask-wearing is a struggle for the district’s youngest students. Not only is face wear apt to “get all wet and soggy,” she said, “they also put snacks in their masks.”

Polson High Spanish teacher Adrienne Barnes believes Oct.5 is too soon to return to four-or five-day in-school teaching. “Even with the A-B hybrid model I still don’t have enough room for six feet between desks,” she told board members. When student numbers double “they will absolutely be shoulder to shoulder.”

She pointed out that Lake County’s count of active COVID-19 cases had already risen from 12 when school started in late August to more than 40 by mid-month. She acknowledged the hybrid model isn’t ideal, “but we’re making something work – our kids are adapting well and we’re adapting well,” she said. 

She urged the district not to relax precautions too soon. “I already feel very vulnerable and I don’t think we should increase those vulnerabilities for teachers or students or families – or for my 91-year-old grandmother. My health and my future are not acceptable casualties.” 

Other teachers echoed her concerns 

Sheri Delaney, a second-grade teacher at Linderman, suggested the district postpone a return to fulltime classes until the end of October or the end of the first quarter. “There’s no way, when we get our kids all back together, we’ll be able to social distance,” she said. 

Bonnie Petersen, a special education pre-school teacher at Cherry Valley, reminded the board that last year’s failed bond levy would have raised funds to replace facilities’ aging ventilation systems. “We were told then our HVAC was terrible and now we’re told it’s fine,” she said. 

With cold weather on its way, “we’ll soon be shut in with a lot of little people or big people. I want my kids there every day. I hate this,” she added. “But I also want to come back next year, and the following year.”

Polson High School science teacher Jon Petersen predicted that returning kids to class full time would lead to a COVID outbreak.

“When we get that many kids in our classrooms social distancing goes out the window,” he said. 

A few parents spoke up too, including Cesar Hernandez, father of a junior. He pointed out that the district limits attendance at school board meetings to 50 but is considering a plan to bring up to 600 high school students back together. 

“We’re not happy with the hybrid, but we’re experiencing hellacious circumstances,” he added, pointing out that COVID risks are compounded by the ongoing smoke from forest fires and the onset of flu season.

“What’s the hurry? Why can’t we wait ‘til the quarter is over and reassess then?” he asked. “We need to err on the side of caution because we’re in unprecedented times.”

Principals praise staff and students

In his report, Superintendent Tom DiGiallonardo told the board that 1,659 students are currently enrolled, with around 20 percent participating in the district’s remote-learning option. 

Results from a survey of parents regarding a move to more in-school learning were due Sept. 17. 

“It’s not going to be easy. It’ll be scary,” he predicted of the transition. DiGiallonardo promised that any decision by the administrative team would be made with input from the staff, community and public health professionals.

Meanwhile, principals at all four of the district schools were enthusiastic about teachers’ and students’ responses to a challenging new learning model. They also mentioned the important role of tech support in helping parents and kids get up to speed with online learning. 

Cherry Valley Principal Rhonda Crowl said after “hundreds of hours of planning” school started smoothly. To help the district’s youngest students who are learning remotely, kindergarten and first-grade teachers have assembled programs on math and literacy “to help parents help their kids,” she said. “It’s almost a double duty for teachers.”

While many parents were concerned about making child care arrangements for kids when they aren’t in school, Crowl says local day care providers have been able to accommodate families. She urged the district to give parents and day care personnel at least two weeks notice before shifting back to a more full-time routine. 

Linderman Principal Kristin Wilson praised her school’s staff for their hard work and creativity in implementing the new model and her students for their cooperation. “Our number-one concern has been safety,” she told the board. “I’ve been really impressed with how students and staff have risen to that.”

 “I can’t say enough about the energy, effort, care and concern with which teachers are delivering education,” said Polson Middle School Principal Jesse Yarbrough, noting that preparing for the new model “has been a really heavy lift.”

Students, he added, “are very good with masks, very diligent. It’s a pleasant surprise.”

He was also pleased to see students participating in fall sports. “It’s great to see kids on the field, on the court … doing some of those normal activities.”

Masks and social distancing have “gone pretty well” in the high school, according to Principal Andrew Fors, who described students as “very coachable and responsive.” 

Still, he urged a speedy return to more in-school learning. “We’re having lots of conversations about how to keep students from failing, how to keep them on track for graduating,” he said. 

Fors described the hybrid model as “not real sustainable” for the high school and advocated the option of four days in class with one day of remote learning as “the best scenario for student success.”

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