Onalaska school officials frustrated at changes but firm on virtual start

Onalaska School District Jpb

Editor’s note: This story is updated to correct attributions of Supt. Todd Antony and Dr. Todd Mahr in the last few paragraphs.

ONALASKA, Wis. (WKBT) — Onalaska School Board members juggled elements of frustration and a resolve to be flexible during their meeting Monday as they discussed the status of opening schools virtually in three weeks.
The board adopted the same plan as other public school districts in the county Aug. 3, starting virtually at the beginning of September and continuing for a month until they can evaluate the process.
The starting plan pivots on four elements:
• Remote learning for the first 30 days
• Monitoring county conditions
• Moving to blended learning
• Working with community organizations to provide emergency school-aged daytime care.
That plan was based largely on guidance from the La Crosse County Health Department’s COVID-19 Compass, which gauged various levels of risk. Later in the week, the department jettisoned the compass in favor of an approach that will include itself and representatives of Gundersen Health System and Mayo Clinic Health System.
“It leaves us in limbo again,” Superintendent Todd Antony told board members. “We do have a plan … tied to the Compass.”
The district expects the Wisconsin Department of Health Services to release further guidance for schools on Tuesday, and the health department/hospitals collaboration is expected to supply more information this week, Antony said.
However, initial feedback from the heads of both hospitals — Dr. Scott Rathgaber at Gundersen and Dr. Paul Mueller at Mayo — is that starting virtually is a good plan, Antony said.
“Sound judgment went into developing” the plan, he said. “Virtual still has merit” to give students a strong start to the school year.
Dr. Todd Mahr, a Gundersen allergist-immunologist who attended the Onalaska meeting virtually in an advisory capacity, said he agrees the districts still should “stay the course” on the virtual openings.
The new collaboration between the hospitals and the health department should provide better information, with statistics and experiences, as the year progresses, he said.
“This is a step forward … but I don’t think it will be a prescription,” said Mahr, who said he has discussed the matter with representatives of other school districts in the county.
The cooperative approach should provide more consistency, with the health systems being able to feed in what they are seeing in their clinics and hospitals, he said.
Board member Shawn McAlister expressed concern about the role of full-time parents in the virtual system.
“I love the plan,” he said. “It’s good, but that’s a big hole.”
Antony indicated that the YMCA will announce daytime programs for school-age children this week, depending on capacity and need. The goal is to do so at low or no cost, he said.
Board member Heather Sysimaki said, “What I’m most concerned about is getting kids back in school,’ while assuring safety at the same time.
“If not now, when?” she said.
“A lot of decision-making is out of our hands, and we have to be nimble,” Sysimaki said. “It’s difficult and frustrating,” with no correct solution available at this time in the pandemic.
Similarly, board member Tim Smaby said, “I don’t think the state and local governments have served the school districts very well.”
One problem with direction from the state DHS is that there is no one-size-fits all plan statewide, Mahr said, noting the different needs in inner-city Milwaukee from those in Madison and those in Onalaska.
As frustrating as it is, starting virtually for 30 days and evaluating conditions will help provide better information on when to open schools, Mahr said.
“I think this is better,” he said. “We don’t have to say, ‘OH, we opened up to early … and become national news,” he said.