BOE modifies COVID decision-making schedule

Chad Frey
The Newton USD 373 Board of Education met online this week to discuss the mode of operation for schools and made a change to how often that decision will be made.

Andy Ortiz chose a pregnant pause in the Newton Board of Education special meeting this week to decide what school will look like next week to speak up about something that is stressing out teaching staff — especially teachers who are also parents.

“I have gotten some some emails, and I was pretty gung-ho having the weekly meetings that we are having now. I don’t know if this is the right time to interject this ... It sounds like the stress level is pretty high,” Ortiz said. “Especially teachers with families. They are seeing it from both sides. They are looking at operating modes on a weekly basis, and having a family toting around.”

He asked if the board of education, which was waiting on final statistics for some categories used to make the weekly mode of operation decision during the meeting, should consider “extending those decisions.”

And while he questioned whether that special meeting was the right time to broach the topic, he found validation.

“I was having some of those same thoughts,” said board member Melissa Schreiber. “... (I) have had conversations that is is too frequent, not only for families, but for teachers. If we want to extend this for a little bit longer than a weekly basis, I would be in favor of that to reduce the stress level of our staff and families.”

Ultimately, that is what the board did, right after making a determination that the district would operate in “green” mode — which is the same mode in place now that features students in school every day, all day — for the weeks of Sept. 28 and Oct. 5.

In the planning for the school year, the district created a multi-stage plan for school operations. Green means students in school all day, every day; yellow means pre-K through fifth grade in school all day, every day with seventh through 12th grade in a hybrid model (student body split into two groups, each group attending in buildings for two days a week and remote the remaining three); orange means all students in a hybrid model at all grade levels; and red means online-only learning for all students.

When creating the gating criteria and plan, the board agreed to hosting a weekly meeting to decide the color level for the following week.

This week the board chose to modify that calendar, based on feedback from teachers that suggested that weekly decisions were creating too much stress.

“We talked about this being a living document and it changing on whatever happens,” Schreiber said.

The board chose to extend the decision-making process to a two-week cycle, though it reserved the ability to call special meetings and make changes if needed.

“If something changes dramatically before meetings, we could make a change,” said board member Mallory Morton. “If something would break loose or spiral out of control before next Monday, we can make a different decision.”

“Dramatic” was defined as a two-category jump in the statistics used for making the decision — the percent of positive tests, student absenteeism rates, teacher absenteeism rates and the trend for two-week infection numbers.