RIVER FALLS — Students can expect to return to classrooms this fall for at least for a couple days a week.

School Board voted 4-3 to have a hybrid learning environment in effect at the start of the 2020-2021 academic year during a special meeting July 27. The decision strikes middle ground between distance learning only and fully reopening schools.

The hybrid plan entails:

  • Students in grades PK-5 will attend class five days a week.
  • Students in grades 6-12 will attend school two days a week; half will report to class Mondays and Tuesdays, and the other half on Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesdays will be for independent learning at home, teacher office hours and deep cleaning.

A district task force recommended the hybrid option as outlined in the district’s evolving Wildcat Roadmap plan.

Pierce County Health Officer AZ Snyder told the board she is concerned about the high activity level of COVID-19 in the River Falls area. Based on experience from other countries, high disease activity in a community can lead to uncontrollable outbreaks in schools.

“I think going in a hybrid model allows us to promote social distancing and cohorting in a way that we likely couldn’t contain in an all in-person situation,” Snyder said.

School Board on Monday also formally approved the Wildcat Roadmap, intended as a guide for quickly adapting to pandemic-related developments. It calls for all students and staff to wear masks when within six feet of others, as well as outlines staggered lunch times, reworked busing zones and a host of other operational changes.

READ MORE: Five things to know in River Falls school district’s fall pandemic plan

“It’s important to understand that it will not be possible to prevent transmission of the virus entirely,” Superintendent Jamie Benson said in a presentation to the board. “Increased contact will more than likely lead to new cases.”

He asked for the River Falls community to do its part to prevent spreading the coronavirus.

Board members pressed school administrators over the nearly two-and-a-half-hour discussion, including questions about the criteria that will be used to determine if the learning environment needs to change; what happens if a student tests positive for COVID-19; and equity concerns for students from low-income households.

The district’s plan is fluid and allows for switching to fully distanced or in-person learning depending on the COVID-19 situation and health department guidance. An online option also will be offered to accommodate parental concerns and students with medical conditions at higher risk for severe illness.

Planning for coronavirus mitigation measures is in good shape, Benson said, but additional planning and building-specific details will continue to be hashed out in the coming weeks.

READ MORE: Letter: River Falls doesn’t need mandatory masks | WIAA pushes back start dates for fall sports

With just over a month before school starts, districts locally and across the country are grappling with reopening. New Richmond, Hudson and Ellsworth school boards this month discussed similar pandemic plans.

Students returning to school is seen as an important step in restarting the economy by allowing parents to return to work. Supporters also say being in school is important for students’ mental and social well-being. Critics point to growing COVID-19 numbers nationally and the risk of students passing the disease to family members at home.

A survey conducted by the district last week found just over 50% of River Falls parents favor sending their children back to school, while 39.9% of staff want in-person instruction.

There were 148 COVID-19 cases and no deaths in Pierce County as of Monday, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. St. Croix County had 398 cases and two deaths.

Statewide 590 cases were added Monday, bringing the ongoing total to 49,417, according to DHS. More than 78% of Wisconsin patients had recovered, with 9,873 cases remaining active.

The first day of school is Tuesday, Sept. 1.