Sunset school principal Ann Smejkal, seen here in a screenshot of Sturgeon Bay School District's Aug. 12 school board meeting, presents a proposed plan for reopening the school to kindergarten and pre-K students.

With less than a month until classes resume, administrators and school boards in four of Door County’s five public school districts have indicated they will welcome at least some students back in-person for the first day of school.

The face-to-face start, though, isn’t a promise of normal classes for the entire school year. Each district — Sturgeon Bay, Southern Door, Sevastopol and Washington Island — is developing transition plans to virtual learning, should the presence of COVID-19 call for it.

The Gibraltar Area School District has transition plans in place as well but, unless coronavirus activity in the county decreases, is on track to start the school year remotely.

Planning for flexibility and quick changes this school year was something all school districts were receptive to during conversations with Door County Public Health, manager and health officer Sue Powers said. Powers has been meeting with the county’s five school districts since June, answering questions and serving as a consultant on their reopening plans.

“There are so many challenges around this pandemic, and so many people have had to adjust. Our lives have just been changed so much on all aspects,” Powers said. “But golly, it really seems to me like the schools have the biggest challenge there is.”

A mass of guidelines for reopening schools have poured from state officials, federal agencies and professional associations this summer.

The state’s guidance, published in June, urged districts to develop plans for in-person learning, physically-distanced learning and virtual schooling, noting the alternative methods of instruction could be needed for the next 12 to 18 months, or until a vaccine for the novel coronavirus is widely available. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction guidance also suggested smaller class sizes, health screenings for students and staff, social distancing in every setting and the isolation and removal of symptomatic people from schools.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in late July, issued a statement stressing the importance of reopening schools in-person this fall. The centers’ guidance recommended community-wide preventive behaviors coupled with several mitigation strategies — such as face masks and social distancing — within schools.

“A lot of careful planning has gone into schools reopening, but there remains a lot of unknowns, and that’s the nature of this pandemic.”

Door County Public Health manager and health officer Susan Powers

President Donald Trump has pressured schools to open in-person, citing guidance from the American Association of Pediatrics that, in part, emphasized the role schools play in mitigating child abuse, ensuring vital services for children who live in poverty, and in supporting the overall health and well-being of children.

The American Association of Pediatrics has since distanced itself from Trump, according to the education news outlet Chalkbeat, and said in a statement that schools “in areas with high levels of COVID-19 community spread should not be compelled to reopen against the judgment of local experts.”

Amy Fogarty, Door County Medical Center chief of pediatrics and medical advisor for county school districts, said she would feel comfortable sending her children back to school during a Facebook Live discussion on July 30.

In conversations with school districts, she said she has recommended they concentrate their efforts on three areas: preventing anyone feeling ill from entering a school building, masking and socially distancing students when they are at school, and keeping the building clean.

“By doing those three things, you get kind of a layered effect,” Dr. Fogarty said during the live discussion. “Washing your hands all the time won’t keep you safe if you’re not doing the other things. Wearing a mask all the time won’t keep you safe if you’re not doing the other things. So it’s really about adding those things, one on top of the other, in order to get the best effect and in order to keep kids safe, and staff.”

While every school district has its own set of unique challenges, Powers said all five districts in Door County have expressed worry for their staff and students as they try to resume learning.

“A lot of careful planning has gone into schools reopening, but there remains a lot of unknowns, and that’s the nature of this pandemic,” Powers said. “To some extent, that’s what’s most frustrating. If we knew how it was going to play out, all of this would be so much easier.”

In Sturgeon Bay School District, the county’s largest with 1,120 students enrolled, school board members have been meeting to discuss reopening in the high school library, from behind face masks and desks scattered around the room. The board is scheduled to formally approve a plan Aug. 26.

Already, the board has approved spending up to $115,000 on personal protective equipment, and members have indicated support for requiring facial coverings for students and staff when classes resume.

In an Aug. 12 board meeting, Superintendent Dan Tjernagel reiterated that the district’s instructional preference will be in-person, though families have the option to choose remote learning for themselves. Tjernagel said he still is waiting for more guidance from the state about what metrics should trigger a shift to remote learning for entire school buildings or the district. Sturgeon Bay Schools plans to reopen Sept. 2.

The district’s principals presented plans for reopening to the school board Wednesday, detailing possible changes to class schedules, class sizes and arrangement of classroom furniture to better keep students and staff safe.

The suggestions included having music and art teachers visit kindergarteners in their classrooms, to cut down on students’ time in the hallways, time set aside for additional cleaning in the elementary schools, and breakfast and lunch in the classroom. Middle-schoolers could be grouped into “pods” of fewer than 25 students.

Principal Mark Smullen compared the proposed scenario at T.J. Walker Middle School to a one-room schoolhouse akin to a “Little House on the Prairie” scene.

“So in case we do have someone who’s infected, it doesn’t wipe out 40, 57 kids,” Smullen said. “We have it all ready to go and we know who to contact.”

In the high school, one-way routes through the hallways will be marked. Principal Robert Nickel, during the board meeting, said he hopes to keep the school from becoming another North Paulding High School — the Georgia school that had a photo of its hallway, packed with many unmasked teenagers, broadcast on national news outlets. The school has reported 35 cases of COVID-19 since reopening.

In the district’s hybrid model, Sturgeon Bay Schools will split students at each school into three cohorts, two general groups that would attend class two days per week, and a third cohort of students with special needs that would attend for four or five days. Most students would attend virtual classes on Fridays.

Southern Door County School District likewise has a plan to reopen to its 1,021 students on-site and in-person five days per week.

The school board approved a resolution Aug. 10 that schools will require face coverings and masks for students, a rule that could extend beyond the expiration of Gov. Tony Evers’ mask mandate.

Its reopening plan includes physical distancing “as much as possible” within classrooms, plexiglass barriers in high-traffic areas such as offices and libraries and modified pathways through hallways, the playground, cafeteria and library.

Southern Door’s virtual learning option, which is accessible to students who can’t attend on-site classes, will stream live classroom teaching and learning. 

If the district moves to remote learning for all students, that instruction as well will be delivered during the normal school day and on the regular school schedule, according to the district’s website.

“Some parents feel we’re not being safe enough, others feel we’re being too cautious.”

Sevastopol School District Superintendent Kyle Luedtke

The Sevastopol School District plans to start the school year with its 600-student enrollment split in half, with the groups alternating between face-to-face instruction and virtual schooling.

Due to facility changes scheduled for summer 2021, the district is starting the school year Aug. 24, Superintendent Kyle Luedtke said.

“The plan right now is, after Labor Day, to have 100 percent of the students here,” Luedtke said. “We’ll take it day-by-day for the whole school year because you never know what the conditions of Covid will be with our population of students and staff.”

The Sevastopol district has developed three instruction models for the coming school year: full-time in-person learning; half-time in-person learning with students divided into two groups that alternate between face-to-face and virtual learning; and an entirely online experience.

Regardless of the district’s chosen operation model, families have the option to choose at-home virtual instruction for themselves.

When school buildings are in use, staff and students will be required to wear masks, and the district is providing two face masks to every student and employee.

“Some parents feel we’re not being safe enough, others feel we’re being too cautious,” Luedtke said. “ … The majority want to get back to normalcy, and a return to school would be normal, but everyone has to make their own decisions for what’s best for their situation.”

Remote learning in the spring made clear “in-person is a better education,” he added, but the district will go back to remote teaching should public health conditions call for it.

“Kids will see a lot of the daily routines have changed since they went home in March,” Luedtke said. “Kids are resilient. They’ve noticed changes in society when they go to Wal-Mart or any store. They’ll see what we’re doing here, and it’s what the whole world is doing right now. They’ll adjust. Kids adapt really quickly.”

Gibraltar Area School District’s 550 students won’t know for sure what their reopening plans are until September 2, six days before the scheduled first day of school. (Disclosure: Gibraltar school board president Stephen Seyfer is a Knock board member.)

The district will monitor weekly data from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, released on Wednesdays, to determine whether school will be held in-person or at-home the following day, according to the district’s pandemic handbook.

If COVID-19 activity in the county is deemed “low” or “medium,” school will be held in-person the next day. “Medium-high” will trigger a move to only individual appointments for students at school, and “high” or “severe” activity will move the district to at-home learning.

The county’s virus activity has been too high since July 8 to allow for Gibraltar schools to reopen in-person, according to the metrics outlined in the handbook.

If schools resume in-person, the elementary school will implement a “one-room schoolhouse” concept, according to the handbook, with desks socially-distanced from each other, required masking and lunch delivered to classrooms. Special classes, like music, art and Spanish, will be delivered remotely.

Secondary students’ schedules will shift to a two-period per day schedule, with students rotating among 10 classes during a five-day week.

The school board of the county’s smallest school district, Washington Island School District, has voted to start the school year in-person five days per week.

Like other county districts, Washington Island’s 73 students will be able to opt-out of in-person classes in favor of virtual education.

“Of course things could change with a case of Covid, but as of now this is our plan,” school board President Amy Jorgenson said. “We are very fortunate to have small classrooms, so distancing will hopefully not be as difficult as larger schools.”

The district still is finalizing details of its plan. Jorgenson said the district’s hope is to film classroom lessons for virtual students. In-person students and staff will be required to wear masks, and teachers can request plexiglass protectors.

Staggered arrival and release times are also being considered, and sanitization stations will be in every classroom.

“These are tough times to know what is best, but at the Board level we feel that having the students in the classroom is the best way for our students to get the most out of their education,” Jorgenson said.

Molly Duffy is a freelance journalist based in Madison, Wisc., where she is pursuing a master’s degree in school psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She previously covered K-12 education for a daily newspaper in Iowa.