With the number of positive COVID-19 cases rising quickly in Jefferson County, the School District of Fort Atkinson is switching to all-virtual classes starting Wednesday, Sept. 23.

It will continue for at least two weeks, with the earliest date for returning to in-person classes being Monday, Oct. 5. Athletic events also are suspended during this time period.

In a letter sent to parents late Monday afternoon, the district announced that there will be no classes on Tuesday in order to give staff time to prepare materials for children to use while learning at home.

The decision to switch to all-virtual instruction was prompted by the Jefferson County Health Department on Monday providing updated numbers on the county’s seven-day rolling average of positive daily coronavirus cases. From Sept. 14-20, it was 26.5 per 100,000 residents.

Last month, the board of education adopted the “Jefferson County Health Department Guidance for School Districts on Addressing the Spread of COVID-19,” which advises moving from the in-person/hybrid instructional model to virtual-learning only for all students if the average exceeds 25.

Jefferson County epidemiologist Samroz Jakvani said Monday that this “places Jefferson County at the ‘very high risk’ category designation with respect to the guidance issues to Jefferson County schools.”

He explained that this guidance is based on guidelines put forth by the Harvard Global Health Institute, and utilizes a key metric of average daily case incidence (specifically, a seven-day rolling average), adjusted per 100,000 population.

“This level of risk and COVID-19 activity indicates that the virus has spread rapidly over the prior two weeks,” Jakvani said. “The seven-day-average daily case incidence for the prior seven days (Sept. 7-13) is 13 new cases daily, adjusted per 100,000. There may be several factors impacting this rapid increase in the activity of COVID-19 in Jefferson County including, but not limited to, the return to in-person learning in educational facilities that serve all age groups and Labor Day events.

“Taken into consideration with the number of cases associated with schools, as well as additional metrics that relate to COVID-19 activity and local capacity to address the spread, Jefferson County maintains our previous guidance to school districts, which recommends that schools temporarily shift entirely to virtual learning modes so that viral transmission is interrupted, contact tracing takes place in order to identify and contain close contacts of confirmed cases, and so that close contacts and others can be observed closely for symptoms to prevent a large outbreak in schools,” the epidemiologist said.

As of Monday, Jefferson County had recorded 1,229 positive and 73 probable cases of the coronavirus, with seven deaths for a case fatality percentage of 0.6 percent. The number of tests returned with negative results is 18,130.

School officials said they were disappointed to have to halt the in-person classes through next week, but the health risk concerns gave them no choice.

“COVID-19 continues to present us all with challenges,” District Administrator Rob Abbott said. “As we have said before, the COVID-19 situation is ever-changing and we need to be prepared to pivot when necessary. It is disappointing that we have to shift to a full-virtual model; however, this is why we took the steps that we did to train our 1Fort staff on new technologies and the mirrored learning model.

“From the beginning, we knew, and shared with the public, that we may need to shift to a virtual-only learning environment at certain points during the school year,” he added. “This may be due to county statistics, but also due to local needs such as adequate staffing due to precautionary measures such as contact tracing and symptoms, as well as the lack of availability of substitute teachers.”

Abbot said district officials hope to return to the mirrored learning model as soon as possible.

“We understand the need for face-to-face learning; however, we need to protect the health and safety of our students, staff and families,” Abbott said. “We ask that our 1Fort community help us return to school by doing their best to practice prevention measures. We appreciate your patience and support as we do our best with new circumstances and unique situations.”

Marissa Weidenfeller, communications specialist with the School District of Fort Atkinson, echoed that sentiment.

She noted that the district obtains the same COVID updates from the Jefferson County Health Department that it releases to the public.

“When the county updates its health dashboard, that’s what we get,” Weidenfeller said, noting that updates typically arrive in the early afternoon. “Anybody has access to view that dashboard — it’s quite helpful.”

District officials have been monitoring the number of positive COVID cases closely, and were surprised to see the fast rise reported Monday.

“Similar to last month when we (district) were working under the previous COVID guidance, we had sent emails to families that the (positivity) numbers were really close (to the threshold for going all-virtual) and we were worried about it,” Weidenfeller said. “But this latest (increase) was a huge spike. In our minds, we were preparing to go virtual only at some point in time, but it’s fair to say that it was surprising that it happened today.”

Hopefully, she said, the COVID-positive case rate will decrease and the district can resume in-person instruction on Oct. 5.

“We’ve been having a really great first 11 days of school and getting into the swing of things — the new routine,” Weidenfeller remarked. “Now we just have to adjust to a new routine and go virtual-only for a few days. And in the grand scheme of things, it’s just a few days.”

Nevertheless, she said, it’s not an easy move.

“I understand it’s tough for our teachers, our students and parents, but we have to do what’s best for the health and safety of our students and staff,” Weidenfeller said. “This was the guidance that our board of education adopted.”

The most difficult part for district officials, she said, is that, at this point, they cannot offer teaching staff any more assistance.

“Our educators always go above and beyond to provide quality programs and services for families, and COVID-19 has really challenged us and it feels defeating when we can’t help everyone,” Weidenfeller note. “And we know, it (remote learning) is going to be tough on families, students and staff, but we do have to look out for their health and wellness.”

She said that the school district recently decided to proceed with a mirrored learning model, and also implemented a one-on-one technology initiative providing every student a device such as a Chromebook or tablet to complete their lessons.

“So, part of that mirrored instruction with each of our teachers able to teach virtually and in-person allows us (district) to pivot when needed because our teachers and our kids know how to use the technology, whether they’re in-person or virtual, and they have the technology to allow for that learning to happen,” Weidenfeller stated.

She said that some people have asked why the district does not have one teacher designated exclusively teach to virtual-only students.

“This is exactly why we decided to not have one teacher devoted solely to virtual, because now all of our teachers are fully equipped for virtual learning with all of their students,” Weidenfeller explained. “We have been playing the long game since the beginning and not the short game. Here’s an example of that!”

In the end, she concluded, the COVID caseload and switch to all-virtual instruction is “a bummer for everybody.”

Meanwhile, the district is offering families the opportunity to order and pick up meal boxes that will contain breakfast and lunch meals for the eight school days of the closure. These boxes will be available for pick up both Wednesday and Thursday at Fort Atkinson High School’s main entrance. All meals are available free of charge to all students under age of 18. A form was sent to families to place their orders.

For further information and updates, families may visit www.fortschools.org/fall2020.

Meanwhile, last Wednesday, the Fort Atkinson school district was notified that a positive COVID-19 case had been reported at both Rockwell Elementary School and Fort Atkinson Middle School. During the past weekend, a positive case at Fort Atkinson High School was confirmed.

Upon learning of the two COVID-19 cases, district officials initiated initial contact tracing, with a follow-up coming from the Jefferson County Health Department.

The individuals identified as close contacts shifted to virtual learning, as required Jefferson County Health Department, officials said. Per the district’s established protocol, all classrooms were closed off so that the custodial staff could thoroughly clean and disinfect the spaces that the individual(s) used in the past several days.COVID-19 or needs to be quarantined.

Statewide, 102,498 positive cases of the coronavirus have led to 1,244 deaths, with the case fatality percentage of 1.2 percent. More than 200,000 people in America have died from COVID-19 since March.

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