Gibraltar School, seen on Monday, Nov. 30, 2020. Photo by Collin Massad.

The Gibraltar School District’s board of education on Monday affirmed a plan to allow elementary students back for in-person instruction on Dec. 7, rejecting a proposal to delay that return until after the new year.

The board decided on Nov. 16 to abandon the district’s threshold reopening plan and opt for a phase-in approach in which students in kindergarten through 5th grade would return on Dec. 7 and students in 6th through 12th grades would return Jan. 11. For all grades under the new plan, parents can choose whether to send their children back to in-person instruction or continue with virtual instruction from home.

Board member Angela Sherman called the special session Monday to propose instead allowing all students to return Jan. 11, citing the potential for a case surge coming out of the end-of-year holiday break. Sherman could not get another board member to second her motion to make that change.

Plans to bring students back before the holidays have been opposed by teachers, administrators and other school staff, as well as county Public Health officer Susan Powers. Parents who called into the meeting Monday offered mixed reactions.

Dr. Amy Fogarty, a pediatrician at Door County Medical Center’s Sturgeon Bay clinic who has been advising Door County schools on their reopening plans, joined the meeting to advise board members in their decision and discuss best practices for a safe return.

“The weeks of December 7th and 14th are probably going to be very difficult weeks,” Fogarty said. “Because of the Thanksgiving holiday and because this is the first time a lot of families have gathered, it’s probably about the time we are going to see more cases and more testing.”

Fogarty said contact tracing in classrooms of younger students is often easier because students are moving around less. However, she said, if there is one positive case in kindergarten, for example, it is likely that at least one of the classrooms and potentially the whole grade will have to go back to virtual instruction for a period of time.

“I don’t know how you want to stack the deck,” Fogarty said. “If the board is concerned about having intermittent shutdowns or closures or quarantines in particular classrooms, you may be better off waiting until January 11th. But this is a weighing of priorities.”

Fogarty said that if instruction is going to take place in-person during the pandemic, there are going to be times when schools and classrooms will need to be shut down.

“It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when,” Fogarty said. “No schools have been spared.”

Sherman said the plan to open Dec. 7 warranted reconsideration because hospitals have become more strained and local health officials have become more outspoken about needing to control the spread of COVID-19 since the school board’s decision was made on Nov. 16.

“We should not tolerate the level of virus at this time,” Sherman said. “This is not something that we should just be okay with, or say is the status quo. We need to bring it down.”

Sherman commended the school for staying closed so far throughout the biggest surge the county has seen.

“We have (stayed closed) because we prioritize health and safety, and to stop that prioritization right now when we need it most of all, does not set us up for success,” Sherman said.

In a Nov. 9 email to Gibraltar Superintendent Tina Van Meer, county Public Health officer Susan Powers recommended against reopening school with such a high case count entering the holidays. Knock obtained the email via a public records request.

“Strictly from a COVID point of view, I would say that now is the exact wrong time to begin face to face school,” Powers wrote. “However, I know there are other important considerations, which very much affect the health and well being of families and students. If you feel that you are to the tipping point making it time to open campus I certainly respect your decision and perspective.”

Board president and former superintendent Stephen Seyfer noted that Door County Public Health has the power to forbid public meetings in the events of emergencies and epidemics, yet has refrained from making a recommendation to any school district in the county to close. (Disclosure: Seyfer is a Knock board member.)

Board Vice President Mike Peot said one of the benefits of a partial reopening in December would be learning invaluable lessons in preparation for opening again after the holiday break.

“There will be bumps in the road, there is no perfect time and the virus is unpredictable,” Peot said. “We need to get started with this process so we can have a better start to the second semester than we did to the first semester.”

Staff and school board take different sides

Fifty-five members of the Gibraltar faculty and staff signed a letter sent to the school board on Oct. 30 in opposition to opening school before the holiday break. Knock obtained the letter via a public records request.

“We encourage the Board of Education to course correct wisely,” the letter reads. “COVID-19 numbers are at all time high in Door County. We plaintively appeal to you that we wait until after the holidays, after the family gatherings, after holiday vacations. When the COVID-19 counts begin to subside, we can allow limited numbers of students in the building.”

The letter contained signatures from teachers, aides, bus drivers and administrative staff.

“We care about our school and this community; we want a voice in making changes,” the letter continues. “Any change in this plan should include staff input for proposed solutions, as we are the people who will implement policies.”

Van Meer echoed the concerns of the staff in a plea she made to board members before they cast their votes at a Nov. 16 special board meeting.

“My worry is that if we force this too quickly, we aren’t going to be able to stay,” Van Meer said. “We are going to start having spread; positive cases on buses and classrooms, and we are going to be quarantining. And then the families that want me to bring kids back are going to be upset with me because I’m going to have to make a decision to close classrooms or shut down buses.”

Most recent decision comes after months of changing plans

Monday’s decision comes after months of changes to the district’s reopening plan. The district’s prior threshold reopening plan, which was struck down by the board Nov. 16, relied upon data provided by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) about the county’s COVID-19 burden level in determining whether students would be able to return to in-person instruction.

The board on Nov. 9 initially approved a proposal made by administrators in a 4-3 vote to adjust the metrics that would determine when students could return. Van Meer recommended adjusting the burden levels within the threshold plan so it would be more attainable for students to return.

Door County’s burden level is now “critically high,” a new category DHS created because of such high case counts across the states.

Seyfer successfully moved to change the data used by the threshold plan so that it only took into account cases within Gibraltar’s district (Northern Door) using DHS census tract data, even though many staff members at the school live outside of those geographical limits.

Sherman said it did not make sense to use census tract data for Northern Door, because the plan still would have used thresholds based on the entire county’s population. Sherman called a special meeting Nov. 12 to reconsider Seyfer’s approved motion because of the inconsistency in the metric. Sherman’s motion was denied in a vote of 3-4.

Sherman called another special session Nov. 16 during which she proposed removing the entire threshold plan and bringing students back on Jan. 11. That motion was defeated in a 3-4 vote despite strong support from the district’s administration. 

Seyfer then proposed bringing elementary students back on Dec. 7 with secondary students on Jan. 11, both with a parent option. Seyfer’s motion was approved with a 4-3 majority.

Parents and community members express frustration with board

Many parents and community members have become frustrated with the board’s changes to its reopening plan and unwillingness to compromise.

Parent Erin Erickson called into the meeting to express her feelings on what she saw as the board’s disregard of input from staff members.

“I just keep hearing parents and kids and their choice, and yes, they should be in school,” Erickson said. “What I don’t hear is staff. I hear that everyone is going to sacrifice our staff for six days of instruction between now and Christmas break. I am incredibly frustrated as someone whose family will be drastically affected by the decision that you make tonight.”

Britt Unkefer, another parent, accused Sherman of not providing any scientific evidence. He claimed that studies have come out recently that contradict what she has said, but did not specifically say where those studies were from or what they revealed.

“There will always be an excuse not to start,” Unkefer said. “With the Jan. 11 start, it will be two weeks after the holiday, so there’s no difference than starting next week.”

Unkefer also recommended that any future board meetings take place in-person. The board has held all of its meetings virtually since April.

“The people elected to this board have to face their electors,” Unkefer said. “This not only comes from me, but also comes from several people who were actually thinking about protesting in front of the school tonight because we feel that you need to face us and talk to us in person.”

Cambria Mueller, a parent who decided to send her children to another district, called in to say that at some point, Gibraltar needs to make the step to bring students back to school.

“I think the community and board need to stop looking at this as if it’s going to be better next week,” Mueller said. “If you make a decision tonight to delay the opening until January, you are setting a precedent and opening the door for people to say it is still not safe to open the school on January 11th.”

Mueller said she hoped that regardless of the decision made, the board would agree to disagree.

“The community is looking to the board to help unite this community, to bring us back to the caring, neighborly community that was before COVID,” Mueller said. “I really feel that the community has been split, and I ask that it start with our board to help repair the damage that has been done in the community and help to get us to a safe place and a place where we can find common ground.”

How reopening will look

Van Meer presented results from a survey sent out to Gibraltar families that indicated 60 percent of K-12 families would bring their students back for in-person instruction and 40 percent will remain virtual.

The survey also indicated that 98 elementary students will return on Dec. 7 and 11 will wait until January. The school has planned a block schedule meaning 41 students in kindergarten-2nd grade will come on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and 57 students in 3rd-5th grades will come on Tuesdays and Thursdays. 

Fifty-six students will be riding buses. Twenty-two will ride on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and 24 will ride on Tuesdays and Thursdays. No more than 10 students will be on a single bus at a given time during the month of December.

Elementary principal Brian Annen said physical barriers such as bookshelves have been brought into classrooms, and plastic sheeting has been hung from ceilings. Annen said desks have been separated by six feet to maintain social distance.

Administrator Tim Mulrain said depending on classroom size, the maximum number of students in a classroom would be 12-15 in order for students to remain socially distant. Survey results indicated that the greatest number of students in a classroom in December would be 10.

Disclosure: Knock editor Andrew Phillips’s mother, Cindy Phillips, is an employee of the Gibraltar School District, as is Knock reporter Solomon Lindenberg’s mother, Trish Lindenberg.