Petersburg School Board members wore masks and sat apart during a special meeting Aug. 6 in the Middle and High School Library. (Left-Right) Sarah Holmgrain, Cheryl File, Katie Holmlund, Jay Lister, Megan Litster. (Photo by Mara Lutomski/PSD)

Petersburg school board postponed their vote last week on a plan for starting school August 31st under a medium risk status. At the Thursday night meeting, the board talked for four hours and heard comments and questions from the public and school administrators. KFSK’s Angela Denning has more:

The school board met over video conference along with about 30 parents and staff. Some parents voiced concerns about school starting with health regulations and protocols.

Niccole Olsen said she did not support virtual online learning or masking for elementary students and advocated for full-time schooling instead. She said having kids in smaller groups should allow for that.

“I really don’t feel comfortable with kids having to mask in the classroom,” Olsen said. “If class sizes are smaller then I don’t see why it’s necessary.”

Alice Williams said she agreed with Olsen’s comments and asked for additional details about recess, PE, and swim classes.

“Along with the importance of kids being in a social environment with their peers I feel it’s really important that they also get that physical activity,” Williams said.

Williams wanted more information about the no symptom policy and what would be required for students returning to school after they’re sick.

Parent Drew Ayriss said he wants the school to be open full-time until, “something drastic happens within the community”. He said he would support the plan If there was a severe COVID-19 outbreak.

“There’s been an enormous amount of precedence placed on a virus that’s barely touched our community,” Ayriss said. “We’ve all stopped everything at the drop of a dime to protect us from this virus, to what cost?”

The school board addressed some of the questions from parents in the four-hour meeting and postponed discussions on others.The district’s plan details health protocols for three levels of risk. For low risk, students could be at school full time. For medium risk, students would alternate between on campus and distance learning. For high risk, students would be distance learning only. The district would decide when the status levels change by working with public health and local leadership.

The district plans to start school slowly under a medium risk level in order to work out kinks for both in person and online learning. In the beginning it would mean alternating morning and afternoon schedules for the elementary.

Superintendent Erica Kludt-Painter said that they would try to schedule siblings together in the grade school so they can attend school at the same time. She said families could home school through the district if they want. Distance learning will be flexible. Students’ progress will be based less about the time in class and more about how they’re performing.

Elementary School Principal, Heather Conn, said elementary classes under medium risk level will be focusing on the basics when students are in person.

“We know that within that three hours we can teach reading, writing, and math,” said Conn. “I don’t know if we can teach science and social studies within that time period. Definitely, we’re going to hit upon it because a lot of our stuff is integrated.”

The proposed plan requires masking most of the time and distancing in the classrooms. The district is not planning disciplinary action for a student not wearing a mask. Kludt-Painter said it will be like other rules in school where teachers will take it on a case by case basis.

“Encouragement and providing support for them and hopefully not having it be a huge battle in that sense,” Kludt-Painter said.

The district’s plan requires symptom free buildings, which means that students with runny noses or coughs will be sent home. There will be daily screenings and temperature checks.

Board member, Katie Holmlund, who is also a preschool teacher, said that mask wearing is an opportunity for young students to learn new skills.

“To learn to register their own sensory input and then advocate for themselves and learn to say, ‘You know what, this is making me uncomfortable, I need to take a break’. That’s a huge skill,” Holmlund said.

All middle and high school students will wear masks with some breaks. Board Member, Megan Litster, said she worried about older students who have trouble advocating for themselves and that manifesting into behaviors instead. Kludt-Painter said the district plans to have conversations with students about masking to help with that.

Secondary Principal Rick Dormer said masking will allow more freedoms for students in some ways.

“So everyone is not rigidly sitting a full six feet, not looking at each other,” Dormer said. “They can turn and talk with people, they’ll still maintain distance. We’ve talked about our chemistry lab, about they’re going to need to get up and walk around the room to do some labs so masking allows that to happen safer.”

Secondary students will be staggered leaving their classes so that they’re not in the hallway at the same time.

The district has ordered fans for every room and plans to have windows open if possible.

Litster said that she hoped local employers would step up and support working parents who need to stay home with their children because of the schools’ schedule.

“I think it’s an important topic of conversation,” Litster said. “I don’t think it’s the school’s burden to solve but I hope employers are listening and thinking how can we reevaluate how we do business so that we can support parents and their kids.”

Board President, Sarah Holmgrain, wanted to remind the public that the district’s plan is fluid. She said the first month of school will be a practice run.

“This is a plan that is going to evolve and potentially change,” said Holmgrain. “This is a way to get us going. It is not the Bible. It is not set in stone.”

Board member, Cheryl File, agreed and asked the public to give the schools a chance to see how it works. She said she personally disagrees with the masking requirement and the AM-PM schedule but she trusts the administration to make good decisions.

“It’s not easy what we’re doing, people, it’s not,” File said. “And it could change in a month, who knows? Right now, this is the best possible scenario that our team has come up with.”

Not all details are figured out yet such as how students will respond to fire drills. But with the current plan, the main schedules and health protocols are in place.

The school board accepted an amended calendar, which starts school August 31, one week later than previously planned. Teachers are not back on the job until August 18 and this allows them some extra planning time.

The board also accepted $778,000 from the Petersburg Borough in Cares Act funding to help pay for additional staff. Kludt-Painter said they plan to give the borough and the school board an update monthly about how they’re spending the money.

The plan for starting up school is on the agenda for the school board for their regular meeting Tuesday. The meeting will be open to the public at this Ring Central video conferencing link. Or Call in Telephonically: 1-623-404-9000 Meeting ID: 327 043 0753.

Email or for the password to access the meeting prior to start time.