Prospective UW-Eau Claire students tour campus Friday, wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Masks will be required of students and faculty on campus when classes begin at the university and other UW System campuses in two weeks.
Prospective UW-Eau Claire students tour campus Friday, wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Masks will be required of students and faculty on campus when classes begin at the university and other UW System campuses in two weeks. (Photo by Julian Emerson)

Without fast results, a school or campus outbreak is much harder to contain.

A lack of COVID-19 testing supplies that has reduced the ability to detect the virus across Wisconsin could become even more acute when students and teachers return to classrooms in school districts and colleges in a couple of weeks, prompting concerns among public health officials and educators. 

Reduced ability to adequately test for the contagious virus as school resumes, and anticipated additional cases occur, could make containing virus spread even more difficult, educators and public health officials said.

On Friday Gov. Tony Evers said the competition among the 50 states for testing supplies that was allowed to occur under President Donald Trump continues to be problematic, and that lack of a national supply strategy will make it more difficult to conduct the necessary additional tests as schools begin to reopen. 

Evers said Trump should have enacted the Defense Production Act months ago in order to produce the supplies the country needed to fight the virus. 

With tests in short supply, Andrea Palm, interim secretary of the state Department of Health Services, said the state is not in a position to test students or staff to the level they would like.

“There certainly is not enough testing here in Wisconsin, or in the nation overall, to do it ideally in a situation like this,” Palm said. 

That said, the state is prioritizing outbreaks at schools. Palm said the state will work with local public healths to be on the ground and help stop the spread “as quickly as possible so those outbreaks can be as small as possible.” 

The state has 422 public school districts, 230 charter schools, and almost 800 private and parochial schools.

Concerns about testing for the virus in Wisconsin have risen recently amid revelations the capacity to conduct tests has been reduced because of a lack of supplies. Such items as test swabs and reagents needed to determine positive results have been lacking, hindering the state’s effort to boost testing to better identify those infected with COVID-19.

Last week U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin sent a letter to Vice President Mike Pence questioning the diversion of testing supplies from Wisconsin to other U.S. COVID-19 hotspots. Shortages of those supplies here are creating added challenges containing the illness here, she said.

DHS officials said given the contagious nature of the virus and the high degree of community spread of COVID-19, outbreaks at schools are a near certainty despite protective measures in place. 

New outbreaks of COVID-19 have happened in schools in various U.S. locations that have opened during the past couple of weeks. Some colleges, including the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and Notre Dame, have suspended in-person instruction as virus outbreaks occurred.

Many faculty at UW System schools are worried about returning to classrooms as COVID-19 caes remain prevalent, said Peter Hart-Brinson, a UW-Eau Claire associate professor of sociology and communication journalism who is president of the university’s faculty union. A lack of adequate testing would exacerbate those fears, he said.  

“A shortage of timely testing is a huge concern,” he said. “If we don’t have adequate testing, how are we going to be able to protect students and staff?” 

University of Wisconsin System President Tommy Thompson said earlier this month the system had received $32 million in CARES Act funding to offer COVID-19 tests to more than 350,000 students in the state as well as bi-monthly screening in residence halls. Those efforts would be in addition to steps colleges have implemented, such as mandatory mask wearing and social distancing practices, to prevent the spread of the virus.  

However, the state’s ability to conduct those tests is uncertain if a testing supply shortage continues, officials said. Evers has written letters to testing reagent manufacturers to obtain more supplies, DHS officials said, and the agency is looking at new options to acquire more materials.

Faculty, students and their parents have raised concerns about the UW System’s plan to hold a mix of in-person and online classes this fall as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to climb in the state. Despite the adoption of multiple measures to limit the virus on campus, many have expressed worries that universities can’t control what happens when students and employees aren’t on campus. 

In Eau Claire, numerous taverns along Water Street, a popular hangout among college students, have been the sites of numerous warnings by the local health department where possible COVID-19 outbreaks may have occurred. People age 20-29 in Wisconsin make up 25 percent of the more than 68,000 positive COVID-19 cases, the highest number for any age group. 

Given those facts and the contagious nature of the virus, most faculty believe it’s only a matter of time before positive cases are detected at college campuses, Hart-Brinson said. Many faculty said they have adapted their in-person courses to be taught online in anticipation of school being shut down because of outbreaks. 

University administrators have worked hard to implement COVID-19 protections, Hart-Brinson said, but “most faculty believe it’s not a matter of if we’ll go online only, but when.”

‘A real concern’

As is the case at the college level, educators in K-12 schools in Wisconsin told UpNorthNews reports of a shortage of COVID-19 testing materials adds to their fears of conducting face-to-face instruction. Many teachers said they fear for their health by returning to classrooms.  

Like colleges, K-12 schools are adopting precautions such as hybrid schedules to allow for social distancing, additional cleaning and the wearing of masks to prevent virus spread. But many educators and parents said they don’t believe those precautions can keep outbreaks from happening, especially with a lack of testing supplies.      

“It’s a real concern,” Agelina Cruz, teachers union president of the Racine Unified school district, said of the anticipated growth of COVID-19 cases amid a lack of adequate testing once the school year begins. “Until we flatten the curve on cases and have a downward trajectory in cases and positive tests, it’s going to create chaos. We know people are going to get sick. Some will end up in the hospital.”

To avoid outbreaks, some of Wiscnsin’s largest school districts, such as Milwaukee, Madison, Racine, Wausau, and Appleton will begin the school year online only. Others will offer hybrid learning models in which students spend time at school and at home, a plan that allows smaller class size and social distancing. Still others will have students in class like normal, but wearing masks and with frequent cleaning of classrooms.  

School administrators and school board members said they may require help from county health department directors to manage school-related testing if numbers climb. But health departments already are struggling to keep up with the surge of cases in the past couple of months. 

Worries about whether it’s safe to resume in-person instruction as the coronavirus pandemic continues have prompted some Wisconsin school districts to shift education plans at the last minute, said Heather Dubois Bourenane, executive director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network. A lack of testing supplies is among many COVID-19-related concerns teachers, students and parents face, she said.

The guidelines offered by the state give decision-making authority regarding how to return to school safely to local districts to weigh all multiple factors and make the decisions they think best to keep the students as safe as possible, Palm said. 

But personnel in many districts said they would like more specific direction from the state in terms of reopening schools safely, Dubois Bourenane said. Among their struggles, she said, are different views regarding whether in-person instruction is safe, and divergent ideas about the importance of such COVID-19 protections as wearing masks.  

“All of this is complicated by a lack of uniformity of approach or opinion” about COVID-19, she said.

UpNorthNews reporter Jessica VanEgeren contributed to this report.