A divided Litchfield School Board decided Sept. 28 that it would not change an education plan established by district administrators.
But the decision — like the district’s three-pronged instruction model — could change at any time, based on a precarious vote and the ever-changing status of the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects on Litchfield and Meeker County.
The board’s vote left in place a decision by high school Principal Jason Michels to have students in the youth service program participate in their community volunteer work only during days they are in school, not on days they are distance learning.
With the high school and middle school both in hybrid mode beginning last week — half of the students in class Monday and Tuesday, the other half on Thursday and Friday — that means that youth service program students go to their volunteer duties twice per week.
Many of the youth service students volunteer in classrooms at Lake Ripley Elementary and Litchfield Middle School.
Board member Dave Huhner said that having youth service students volunteer only on in-school days has left teachers without badly needed classroom assistance.
“I’m hearing we need to support our staff,” Huhner said at one point during what was a lengthy discussion. “I see a high school helper as an easy way of saying, ‘here’s some help.’”
Michels told the board that about 50 students currently are enrolled in the youth service program, most of them seniors. Of those, 28 assist at Lake Ripley and another 18 volunteer in middle school classrooms.
The decision to have youth service students volunteer in the classroom only on days their cohort is scheduled to be in class was like many COVID-19 related decisions the district’s administrative team has struggled with, Michels said, but he thought it was the best decision possible.
“It would be incredibly challenging” to have youth service students volunteer in the classroom even on days they are not scheduled to be in school, he said. “I would love to send the kids four or five days a week, but that’s not the situation we have.”
Huhner, who has been a strong proponent of keeping students in school throughout and has even questioned the requirement that students and teachers wear masks in school, pushed to change the decision. He said he thought originally that the youth service decision was dictated by the state, but when he realized it was a local decision, he thought he should be reconsidered.
“Kids and teachers are better off in school,” Huhner said, then questioning why the administrative team was “flying at 10,000 feet” when making decisions on the district’s education approach. He later added that, “I think you’re going to see an angry mob of parents if we do not start trying to give back to our students.”
Board member Greg Mathews asked Michels if making an exception to the in-class schedule for youth service students would “open the floodgates” to exceptions.
“Do I believe there would be multiple requests for other groups to do the same?” Michels said. “The answer would be, ‘yes.’”
“I hope there are is my answer,” Huhner replied.
But board chairman Darrin Anderson said he didn’t like the idea of reversing the administrators.
“I don’t want to open a Pandora’s box,” Anderson said. “Me personally, I hate to second guess our administrtors. By overturning their decision, we’re saying we don’t trust our administrators.”
Michels said he didn’t see it as the board invalidating administrators’ work so much as opening the door to a wide spectrum of challenges.
“To me, the fundamental question is, do we want to make exceptions for certain classes for certain reasons … because there will be more requests,” Michels said. “What vision and direction does the school board have for the future of 50-50 (hybrid learning) or going distance or in-person learning?”
Activities director Justin Brown also questioned the logistics of youth service students volunteering even on home learning days. On those days, students would have to drive to their volunteer site, and depending on where they live, might not get back home in time to join the start of their next class online.
In the end, the board rejected Huhner’s motion to allow youth service students to volunteer even on home learning days, on a 2-2-2 vote. Huhner and Chase Groskreutz supported the motion, while Anderson and Mathews opposed it, and Marcia Provencher and Julie Pennertz abstained.
Acknowledging the complexity of the issue, however, Anderson said he hoped discussion would continue. “This is not something that cannot be brought up again,” he said.