By Brett Nachtigall
HOT SPRINGS – Three of the four new administrators hired by the Hot Springs School District this past spring were personally in attendance of a school board meeting held this past Monday night, July 13, which was each of their first official meetings after their contracts went into effect July 1.
Attending in person were new Special Education Director Jacquileine Schniers, new Assistant Secondary Principal/Activities Director Charles Hruby and new Secondary Principal Troy Lurz. Attending by video conferencing was new Elementary Principal Abby Karn. During their administrator remarks at the end of the meeting, all of them expressed an excitement for starting their new positions and a willingness to “hit the ground running,” which prompted them all to unofficially begin work for the district, even before their contracts began.
Other new administrators – but not new faces – also personally in attendance included Superintendent Dennis Fischer and Business Manager Wendy Bilbruck. While in new positions, neither are new to the district as Fischer moved up from his previous Business Manager position, while Bilbruck moved up from her Assistant Business Manager position.
The majority of the near two-hour board meeting was spent going over a report from a Safety Committee meeting held on July 8, in regards to how the school was planning to deal with COVID-19 related precautions.
Supt. Fischer said there is a need to be flexible with their plans based on the ever-changing status of the virus and the amount of local community spread, but as of now, the district is planning to safely start classes as scheduled, beginning on Aug. 17. He however recommended that the board plan on a special meeting on July 27 to analyze the situation at that time and then finalize the start date.
Board President Bob Preuss noted that some schools in the area are considering a later start of 1 to 2 weeks, but based on the feedback from a recent parent survey and other sources, including administration, staff and other board members, the initial determination was to begin on time.
Preuss said that for those who are not comfortable sending their children in for in-school classes, the district is also making arrangements to provide distance learning opportunities.
“Don’t judge distance learning for the fall based on the experience from the past spring,” Preuss said, as he described how a great deal of effort has been put in to improving the experience from last year when teachers were forced to quickly adapt on the fly.
When Fischer asked for additional input from other board members not involved previously with the Safety Committee, both Mark Walton and Nikki Shaw expressed a desire to get back to normal and get students back in the classrooms. Board member Petra Wilson however had a different perspective and said she supported postponing the start until after Labor Day. She added that she had concerns for sending her children back to school, based on her experience of her son nearly dying from pneumonia a couple of years ago.
The three-page Safety Committee meeting summary, which Preuss went over in detail, outlined a number of topics and concerns addressed by the committee, ranging from new in-school learning practices, the wearing of masks, when to do symptom screenings, classroom procedures and the various steps that the district is taking.
Some of the highlights of those topic discussions, which are not finalized at this point, included:
• It’s of the utmost importance that parents do at-home screenings before sending kids to school
• Busing will have assigned seating in alternating rows with students always sitting with family
• Only students and staff will be allowed into the school buildings unless given prior approval
• Masks will likely not be required to be worn all of the time, but they may be during specific circumstances, including on the bus, at drop-off areas, in hallways and other “mask zones” inside, when a student needs close one-on-one help at their desk, and at recess and other activities where social distancing is not possible or practical
• While in classrooms, all students will face forward at the desks, which will be arranged to maximize proper social distancing
• Lunch will be had in the classrooms instead of the cafeteria
• “Community Materials” such as school supplies will not be used and shared. Instead each student will have their own.
• In accordance with state requirements, new sports physicals will not be required for students competing athletically during the 2020-21 school year for students who have a sport physical on file at the school from the 2019-20 school year.
Supt. Fischer said the district had purchased about $11,000 in sanitization products to ensure there would be enough to last the entire first semester to ensure there would not be supply issues during the school year.
Additional steps the school district has made in anticipation of the precautions needed for this year include:
• Conducting online survey to determine family intent and confidence to return to school
• Creating a new Facebook page to communicate with parents and the public (Hot Springs Schools 23-2)
• Purchased portable UVC lights to help with sanitization
• Ordered N95 makes, as well as Bison Logo masks, which will be distributed to every student and staff
• Discontinued the high school’s “2 Absence/No Semester Finals” practice from the handbook in order to not encourage students’ attendance in the event of illness
• Ordered Chromebooks for the Secondary School to help with schoolwork and to better facilitate distance learning.
President Preuss said that he felt it best to have the school begin classes this fall with enough precautions in place to help set a standard of expectations and then start rolling that back if there is not community spread, as opposed to trying to implement more restrictions later in the year if things begin to turn bad.
Supt. Fischer said that a key component to the success of all the school’s steps to make their facility safe is having the parents making sure their kids are not sick when they send them to school. He also added the students must realize that they are going to have to change their habits and hygiene in order for them to be with their friends in school, which may mean washing their hands multiple times a day, using hand sanitizer and wearing masks when necessary.
Prior to discussing the aforementioned committee report, there was a considerable amount of general housekeeping duties performed by the school board at this meeting as well, due to it being the first meeting of the new school year.
Board member Petra Wilson, who was re-elected for a three-year term during the recent June 2 election.
The board also re-elected both Preuss as the President and Shaw as Vice President. Prior to doing a roll call vote however, board member Mark Walton stated that he felt someone with considerable board experience should hold the title of President. He then implied that was not the case last year when Preuss was voted in as President in his very first meeting. Walton said that there were actions and mistakes made during the past school year for which he was embarrassed.
Preuss responded by saying he now has 12 months of experience as the board president and also has previous experience on other board and committees, including the Bethesda Lutheran School Board. He said he serves at the pleasure of the board and would be willing to serve again if so nominated and elected.
He was then nominated by Frances Stokes and won by a 5-2 vote over Nikki Shaw.
Shaw was then reelected as the Vice President after being nominated by Zac Bell. She also won by a 5-2 vote over Zac Bell, who was nominated by Ryan Walz.