Covid-19 is infecting school staff in central Wisconsin. Here’s how districts plan to make quarantine or closure decisions.

Published: Aug. 28, 2020 at 6:45 PM CDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - Staff members are testing positive for COVID-19 across several central Wisconsin school districts this week as many schools gear up for the start of school next week. The start of the school year is postponed by two weeks in Thorp, a district of about 600 students on the western side of Clark County, where multiple staff members tested positive for COVID-19. But in New Lisbon and D.C. Everest, school right now will continue as scheduled in-person next week after a staff member tested positive in both districts.

Reopening plans for most school districts across the area say they will rely on their health departments to make quarantine decisions for staff and students. On a broader level of building or district closures, a specific threshold of cases that would prompt a halt to in-person learning isn’t provided in either state guidance or any major school district reopening plan in Central Wisconsin.* And while decisions to close a building or the district can be made by the district or county health officials (or an order of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services), the individualized approach to closures invoked by most reopening plans involves advice from county health officials and decision-making power that could rest in either the district, the health department, or both--depending on the school.

“Wisconsin is a home rule state, and as such, local health departments make decisions based on what’s best for their community,” Jennifer Miller with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services said. “DHS supplies guidance and technical assistance to help local health departments arrive at the best decisions, but we don’t make the decisions for them.”

In newly-issued guidelines last week, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services didn’t provide a threshold case number for when schools should consider temporary closures or virtual learning in event of an outbreak. That’s intentional, a spokesperson says, leaving it up to school districts and their county health departments to formulate plans when COVID-19 outbreaks occur. Their guidelines outline recommendations for pausing in-person learning on three different levels: classroom, building, and district-wide, providing different sets of factors when considering closures of each. Common denominators across all categories, however, include recommendations to stop in-person learning when staffing levels dip below adequate numbers due to quarantines, or when less-restrictive ways of controlling an outbreak aren’t effective.

Those recommendations are only state guidelines, not rules. County health departments have a large share of the influence when making decisions about school closures or classroom quarantines, according to a review of dozens of school reopening plans in Central Wisconsin. Under Wisconsin state law, health officers have the authority to inspect schools and order a halt of “public gatherings” for public health concerns. (The statute is cited in a Dane County Health order to keep schools closed to start the school year, which a conservative group has asked the state Supreme Court to overturn.) In Juneau County, the New Lisbon School District said in their announcement this week regarding a positive case among staff that either the school district, their county health department, or the DHS could make the decision to close the district. In Marathon County where a staff member tested positive, the health department’s Judy Burrows said an order to close will come from the district, not the county.

“This is a complex situation with many factors,” Judy Burrows with the Marathon County Health Department told NewsChannel 7 in an email on Friday, just hours prior to the Friday evening announcement that a staff member had tested positive at Hatley Elementary in the D.C. Everest district. “Each COVID case presents a different set of circumstances that we need to consider when making decisions. It is more that the number of cases; it is about the risks to the whole school population.”

The district noted that the Marathon County Health Department had approved their plan to move forward with opening schools on September 1, with a thorough cleaning of the building where a staff member was infected. Burrows said the county does not have a specific threshold of cases that would prompt closure, something noted in Stratford School District’s FAQ reopening guidelines.

On an individual level, most school districts say their health department will make quarantine decisions for staff and students. In Nekoosa School District, their reopening plans say that decision-making power will extend to classroom-wide quarantines. A letter from the Wood County Health Department to parents earlier this month asks parents to be ready for a complete transition to virtual learning should there be a “significant” number of cases in the district.

Ultimately, officials say a variety of factors will play into any closure decisions where districts range from just a couple hundred students to thousands, and from single-building facilities to districts with well over a dozen schools.

“The COVID-19 situation remains a very fluid situation and will require us to be prepared for multiple scenarios throughout the school year,” guidance on D.C. Everest’s website states, “Including the possibility of having to close school buildings due to a significant number of students or staff testing positive for COVID-19 or reporting other illnesses in our state or region.”

*Districts numbering several thousand students, but with the exception of Wausau School District which is the only district in the area and one of a few statewide that plan to begin their school year virtually.

Copyright 2020 WSAW. All rights reserved.