Schools reopen COVID spreading
The state Department of Health Services said last week it will not name schools that have COVID-19 cases, nor report the number of cases within each school district, a similar approach taken when deciding against naming bars and restaurants with outbreaks. The department will only report how many school districts have two or more cases. (Shutterstock image)

“Test scores don’t mean a lot if you’re dead,” say educators of the still-untamed virus.

Tuesday marked the first day of a return to class for many Wisconsin school districts during a pandemic, but for those that returned to in-person classes in mid-August, cases of COVID-19 already are being reported, prompting concerns and questions among educators and parents.

The state Department of Health Services said last week it will not name schools that have COVID-19 cases, nor report the number of cases within each school district, a similar approach taken when deciding against naming bars and restaurants with outbreaks. The department will only report how many school districts have two or more cases. 

However, according to information gathered from local health data, press releases, letters, media reports, and interviews conducted by UpNorthNews, there have been at least 73 COVID-19 cases to date among students and school staff. 

Those cases are located in the following school districts: nine in Arrowhead; three in Burlington; five in Hamilton; nine in Kettle Moraine;  three in Menomonee Falls; three in Mukwonago; eight in Oconomowoc; one in Palmyra-Eagle; two in Pewaukee, and 22 cases in Waukesha. 

According to the Waukesha County Health Department, the 22 cases is a significant increase from the two cases reported two days ago. Of those cases, 18 are in the 15-18 age range. 

The number of cases includes not only students in the Waukesha district but those within district boundaries who attend private or parochial schools, Deputy Superintendent Joe Koch said.  

Eighty-five students and staff are now quarantined in the Burlington Area School District after three positive cases were reported: one in the local high school, and two in a middle school. Classes began there on Aug. 17, according to the Racine Journal Times.

“This shouldn’t surprise any of us,” said Ron Martin, an Eau Claire teacher and president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council.

Republicans have pressured school districts to open for in-person learning despite the unclear risks associated with COVID-19 in children. On July 29, 47 of the state’s 66 Republican representatives sent an unknown number of local school districts a joint letter pressuring them to reopen. The legislators said in-person learning would “ensure all students have access to the best education possible” because virtual learning is not as effective.

But, some educators told UpNorthNews, in-person learning poses an unnecessary risk when the coronavirus pandemic is still raging.

“Test scores don’t mean a whole lot if you’re dead,” Martin said.  “We have to put health first. It’s necessary.”

As they prepared for starting a new school year amid myriad difficulties posed by the coronavirus pandemic, school officials have taken many steps to try to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks, among them smaller class sizes, a mix of online and in-person learning options, and requiring face masks. 

Some districts, such as Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, Racine, and Appleton, have opted to begin the school year with an online-only model because of COVID-19 concerns. Kenosha’s school board initially voted to start the year virtually but reversed course in mid-August.

Others ignored the health risks and fully opened—such as Georgia, where one district quarantined about 1,200 students last month after an outbreak. 

Kewaskum school district officials sent a letter to parents notifying them that on Tuesday a student had contracted the virus, and that the Washington Ozaukee Public Health Department is tracking students and others who may have had contact with the infected student. 

“Close contacts may be assigned to virtual learning for a period of 14 days,” the letter states before listing COVID-19 symptoms and directing people to contact their health care provider if they are experiencing symptoms. 

Other districts also have reported confirmed cases of COVID-19. For instance, the Thorp school district in western Clark County has decided to delay the start of the new school year by two weeks after several staff members tested positive for the virus. 

School district and Clark County Health Department officials have not revealed the exact number of school staff who have contracted COVID-19. Health Department officials said they are working to track and contain the virus. 

“Our state really has to give greater guidance, particularly on mask wearing and enforcing that, enforcing large group [gatherings],” Martin said.

The Cornell school district in Chippewa County has not yet had a case of COVID-19, Superintendent Paul Schley said, despite starting the school year early, on Aug. 17.

While that may be reassuring to parents in that district, others said they worry the spread of the virus in schools is inevitable, despite the many precautions districts are taking.

“I don’t know how you could have a contagious virus like this and not have it spread in schools,” said Laura Widener, whose two children attend the La Crosse school district.    

Many teachers also have expressed concerns about working amid the virus, saying it endangers those who have underlying health issues and are especially susceptible to catching COVID-19. Some have retired early rather than continue teaching with the virus present.

Eau Claire City-County Health Department Director Lieske Giese said her department, like others across the state, is working closely with schools to prevent and track COVID-19 cases. Containing the virus as schools convene likely will prove challenging, she said.  

“We know we’ll have cases,” she said. “Our goal is to keep the circle of spread as small as possible.”

As UW-Eau Claire English professor Stephanie Turner prepared to teach her first class of the fall semester Wednesday, she pondered the safety concerns of interacting with students. She said she has received messages from one of her students with COVID-19 symptoms and another whose roommate recently tested positive for the virus.   

Those results come as Eau Claire City-County Health Department statistics show 46 percent of the county’s 838 cases to date are in people ages 20-29. Other college towns in Wisconsin show similar high percentages of cases in that age group, a concern to university teachers.  

“There is a lot of worry here,” said Turner. “There is a lot of discussion about how we will be able to (teach) safely.”

Turner and many of her colleagues wonder how long in-person learning will be possible at universities amid COVID-19 concerns. In her three decades as a professor, she said she hasn’t encountered a situation as challenging as teaching amid a pandemic. 

“No matter what happens, this year is going to be different,” she said.