The School District of Fort Atkinson is extending virtual learning to at least Oct. 19 as the number of coronavirus cases continues to rise throughout Jefferson County.

On Monday afternoon, the Jefferson County Health Department reported that the county’s seven-day rolling average of daily positive COVID-19 cases per 100,000 county residents had grown to 36.8. In compliance with county health guidelines, the district closes in-person classes when the threshold hits more than 25, considered at “very high risk.”

“The School District of Fort Atkinson will continue with the full virtual instruction model until at least Monday, Oct. 19,” District Administrator Rob Abbott said in a letter emailed to students’ parents. “Thank you for continuing to do your best to support your learner(s) during this temporary full-virtual learning period.”

This marks the second extension for reopening in-person classes since the school year began. On Sept. 23, the district switched to virtual learning only when the seven-day rolling average of positive coronavirus cases hit 26.5. One week later, as the numbers continued to rise to 32.9 per 100,000 residents, it extended the return to school to Oct. 12. Now that has been changed to at least Oct. 19.

“Why are we closed and other districts are not? That’s our question, too,” Abbott said. “We agree that in-person instruction is best for the majority of our learners. However, this is a public health emergency which was issued not only by the Jefferson County Health Department and the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, but also most recently by the White House Coronavirus Task Force, which identified Fort Atkinson in a weekly report as one of 12 cities in Wisconsin to be classified as a ‘red zone.’”

He said that in addition, the district has been advised by our insurers and legal counsel that there is greater financial risk and ability to argue against institutional liability if the district knowingly chooses not to follow the guidance provided by the Jefferson County Health Department.

“Our hope is to return to mirrored learning as soon as safely possible,” the superintendent said. “According to guidance from the Jefferson County Department of Health, for in-person learning to resume, the daily case incidence value and community spread will need to stabilize and be on the appropriate downward trajectory.”

On Friday, all Jefferson County school districts received the following communication from Jefferson County Health Department epidemiologist Samroz Jakvani and Director Gail Scott:

“Over the past several weeks, Jefferson County has seen an increasing trend in cases, which may not decrease significantly in the short term unless behaviors across Jefferson County change to better align with public health recommendations. As a result, contact tracing and follow-up staff at JCHD and Wisconsin Department of Health Services are immensely overburdened, as are many systems in Jefferson County that relate to the pandemic. Through our investigations, we have found that the rise in activity is in large part due to a lack of adherence to public health recommendations regarding physical distancing and socializing across Jefferson County.”

Scott and Jakvani wrote that they continue to strongly encourage schools to monitor the county’s COVID-19 dashboard and fully adopt the guidance regarding shifts to virtual learning during times of high case incidence like the one currently being experienced.

“One thing that we have observed impacting a clear benefit is when schools temporarily shift to virtual learning, our staff have observed a significant reduction in the number of close contacts,” they said. “Another observation we have made is that mitigation measures are largely successful. If we maintain the best practices of wearing masks, washing hands and watching our physical distance, we can reduce transmission significantly. The most critical aspect of this is to ensure we are absolutely diligent in promoting compliance with these behaviors among all staff and students.”

They reminded the area school districts that while a countywide seven-day rolling average of daily case incidence per 100,000 is the key metric being used to inform districts regarding closure and reopening recommendations, they must keep in mind that all should remain adaptable to changing conditions that go beyond this number.

“These metrics will be continuously monitored by JCHD and include percent positivity, community spread, contact tracing capacity and function, hospitalization rates, and hospital capacity, and access to testing ... All of the above recommendations and guidelines are subject to change based on the state of COVID-19 in Jefferson County, adjacent jurisdictions, and Wisconsin overall,” the health officials said.

They reported that as of Friday, Oct. 3, Jefferson County had continued to exceed thresholds in the following metric areas noted in the Jefferson County Health Department Guidance for School Districts and the Centers for Disease Control Indicators for Dynamic School DecisionMaking:

• Seven-day rolling average of Daily Case Incidence (per 100,000) equals 36.8 (more than 25 indicates very high activity).

• Percent positivity equals 18.6 percent (it should be 10 percent or less).

• Community spread equals 60 percent-plus since mid-September (it should be less than 40 percent to be considered at critical level, per JDHD).

• Contact tracing. Jefferson County currently does not have the staffing capacity to do contact tracing of close contacts due to large number of cases.

• Hospitalization rates/capacity. Fort HealthCare has reported decreased capacity intermittently in the past few weeks.

• Fourteen-day total of new coronavirus cases per 100,000 people equals 496 (it should be less than 200).

Abbott said the he hopes this helps clarify the multitude of decisionmaking factors that the board of education and district administrators continue to evaluate and consider as they move forward.

“Please know that we are taking this action to protect the health and safety of our students, staff, and families,” he said. “Since we have gone virtual, our School District of Fort Atkinson positive cases and quarantine numbers have declined.

“We look forward to the return to in-person learning in the near future. Please help us by doing your part to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

Abbott noted that the district will continue to give families the opportunity to order and pick up meal boxes that will contain breakfast and lunch meals for the school days of the closure. These boxes will be available for pick up both Thursday and Friday, Oct. 8 and 9, at Fort Atkinson High School’s main entrance. All meals are available free of charge to all students under age 18.

Persons who did not sign up for meals last week are asked to complete a form available on the district website.

He also reminded parents that the district’s Fall 2020 webpage contains a technical support resources to assist families and students with virtual learning.

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