A COVID-19 outbreak forced Mondovi Middle & High School to close just four days into the new school year. With school having just started, hundreds of students and staff across Wisconsin have been forced to quarantine due to contracting or being exposed to COVID-19. (Photo via Mondovi School District)
A COVID-19 outbreak forced Mondovi Middle & High School to close just four days into the new school year. With school having just started, hundreds of students and staff across Wisconsin have been forced to quarantine due to contracting or being exposed to COVID-19. (Photo via Mondovi School District)

With school barely back in session, hundreds of kids and staff are already COVID-positive or quarantined.

Just four days after the start of a new school year, Mondovi School District officials closed school for two days because of a COVID-19 outbreak. 

In a letter to district parents, Superintendent Jeffrey Rykal announced the closure of school Tuesday and Wednesday because of a high number of coronavirus cases. Classes resumed Thursday after staff had devised measures such as increased social distancing at the middle and high school intended to limit virus transmission. Elementary students returned to a cohort instruction model to slow virus spread. 

Those coronavirus mitigation measures were necessary because of “the upswing in positive student and staff COVID cases,” Rykal said. The district’s COVID-19 dashboard does not list the number of students testing positive for the virus or in quarantine. 

Like many Wisconsin schools, the Mondovi district, in Buffalo County, does not require that students and staff wear face masks in school. The Centers for Disease Control and other public health agencies state that masks and other COVID-19 mitigation measures, such as social distancing and frequent hand washing, are proven to reduce virus transmission. 

Despite the school board not mandating masks in Mondovi, Rykal is urging that they be worn to prevent further outbreaks. 

“It is STRONGLY recommended that all students and staff wear a mask, whether vaccinated or unvaccinated,” Rykal wrote in a letter to parents. “Masking is not mandatory, but highly encouraged, particularly in our student population that is not eligible for the vaccine.”

Mondovi isn’t alone among Wisconsin school districts experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks with the school year having barely begun. As districts across Wisconsin resume in-person instruction amid climbing COVID-19 cases and the especially infectious Delta variant, outbreaks of the illness are occurring in many schools, data from schools and the state shows.

Just two weeks into the new school year for most districts, many of them are experiencing COVID-19 cases as well. For instance, virus spread has been extensive in Green Bay schools, where as of Friday 62 students and 12 staff were in isolation after testing positive, and another 902 students and 18 staff were quarantined.

RELATED: Northwest, North-Central Wisconsin Hospitals Have Four Total ICU Beds Available as COVID Surges

While state education and health officials don’t have exact figures for positive COVID-19 cases in schools, significant numbers of infections are happening in some districts, figures show, and have forced at least two closures. COVID-19 public health investigations—which can be launched after two positive cases are discovered at one site—are currently underway at 312 educational facilities, according to state Department of Health Services data.

In the Stanley-Boyd Area School District in Chippewa County, which has an enrollment of about 1,000, 228 students are either isolated or quarantined because of COVID-19 exposure. Currently, 40 students and three staff members are considered active, positive cases.

The state’s two largest school districts are being impacted by COVID-19 as well. On Wednesday Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) officials announced Morse Middle School for the Gifted and Talented will close for 10 days, and students will learn virtually, after 3% or more of the school’s population tested positive for the coronavirus.

Students, some wearing protective masks, arrive for the first day of school at a Florida elementary school. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara, File)

MPS officials did not say how many students at Morse tested positive. For the week of Aug. 30 to Sept. 3, district figures show 35 staff and 115 students districtwide tested positive for COVID-19. On Thursday, the MPS board voted to become the first Wisconsin school district to require its employees to be vaccinated against the virus. 

Staff must be vaccinated by Nov. 1, and the district will also  offer students $100 to get vaccinated.

The Madison School Board also supports mandatory staff COVID-19 vaccinations and could approve that action later this month. The district, with about 26,000 students and 3,000 staff, has reported 45 positive COVID-19 cases in the last two weeks and 106 quarantined. 

Those instances and others across the state have health officials such as Audrey Boerner, public information officer for the Eau Claire City-County Health Department, concerned. In the Eau Claire Area School District, 36 students and three staff members had tested positive for the virus as of Sept. 4, the most recent district figures available. A total of 156 students were quarantined at that time, and the Eau Claire North High School football team has cancelled its last two games because of a COVID-19 outbreak.

Eau Claire County recorded 78 positive COVID-19 cases Thursday, marking a continued rise in cases since mid-July, when there were a few new daily cases. That trend is happening throughout Wisconsin. COVID-19 levels are listed as “high” or “very high” in all of the state’s 72 counties, according to the state Department of Health Services.

Increasing COVID-19 cases are putting pressure on Wisconsin hospitals. The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 topped 1,000 recently, a level last seen in January. As of Thursday, 1,071 were hospitalized because of the virus, 32 more than the previous day and 95 higher than a week ago, according to Wisconsin Hospital Association figures

Statewide, only 93 of 1,359 intensive care beds used to treat the most seriously ill COVID-19 patients are available. That figure is critically low in some regions. For instance, in the northeast part of the state, just 7 of 207 ICU beds are available. That total was just 1 of 72 ICU beds in the northwest region and only 2 of 125 beds in the north-central region.      

“We are seeing a steady increase in cases, and it doesn’t show any signs of slowing down,” Boerner said. “We hope it levels out soon, but it is hard to say.”

Mask Debate

As the number of new COVID-19 cases grew during the summer, school districts were forced to decide whether to require face coverings by students and staff. 

Initially, when disease transmission had dropped significantly earlier in the summer, most back-to-school plans didn’t require masks. But debate about COVID-19 mitigation strategies increased along with virus case numbers.

In recent weeks, many of the state’s larger school districts, such as Madison, Milwaukee, Green Bay, and Eau Claire have announced mandatory mask policies. Other districts have reconsidered earlier decisions not to require masks and now do so. 

For instance, Wisconsin Rapids Public Schools District Superintendent Craig Broeren announced Thursday the district will require masks in Lincoln High School after 10% of that school’s students and staff have been quarantined because of COVID-19.  

But many districts across the state, especially smaller ones in rural areas, do not have mandatory mask policies or social distancing measures in place, despite recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other public health agencies that face coverings be worn by everyone in school settings to slow virus spread. 

Some school administrators and school board members have openly opposed masks or other measures intended to reduce COVID-19 transmission. The Menomonie School District voted twice in recent weeks against making masks mandatory, with some board members saying such measures are unnecessary. 

Discussion of whether to require masks has become a controversial flashpoint at many school board meetings around the state, with police being called to calm heated discussions at some meetings. Last month, three Oconomowoc school board members resigned after contentious debate about COVID-19 regulations in school.  

(Graphic by Morgaine Ford-Workman)

On Aug. 28 Tomahawk school district Administrator Terry Reynolds resigned after the school board in the northern Wisconsin community reversed a face mask requirement, changing it to a mask-optional policy. People opposed to wearing masks in school are now seeking to recall six board members they believe have been too supportive of public health restrictions related to COVID-19.

Throughout the summer and early school year, Heather Dubois Bourenane, executive director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network, said she has heard from school leaders across Wisconsin seeking state leadership on addressing COVID-19 measures. She has watched with frustration as debate about wearing masks in schools and other COVID-19 mitigation measures has become politicized rather than being based on medical professionals’ recommendations. 

“The issue has become shamefully politicized,” she said. “That is the most regrettable thing about this. It’s time for the adults to actually act like adults. … Their most important role is to protect our children.”

As schools begin this school year with face-to-face learning amid active disease transmission, COVID-19 outbreaks will be hard to avoid, St. Croix County Public Health Administrator Kelli Engen said.  

“With less prevention measures in place this school year, such as masking and social distancing, I fear we will see more disease spread within the school setting,” she said, noting the number of COVID-19 infections in children has increased significantly in her county, with 31 during the first week of this month.

Dubois Bourenane worries that trend will continue unless more schools require masks and take other measures to reduce COVID-19 transmission.  

“The guidance from DPI and medical professionals remains clear. The safest way to go back to school, and the only way to keep face-to-face instruction, is through vaccination and masking,” Dubois Bourenane said.