School buildings closed 2

Pam Chickering Wilson

Jefferson High School reopened Thursday and Friday to in-person students, only to close again this week as the entire district went virtual in response to high COVID-19 spread in the area and the resulting difficulty in keeping the school buildings fully staffed. Pictured here, a "Mask Up" reminder sign stands in front of the main entrance to Jefferson High School, with an empty tent intended for outdoor instruction at left.

JEFFERSON — Following proper COVID-19 health protocols has been challenging but feasible in the School District of Jefferson, and school officials report excellent compliance by students and staff with mask mandates and social distancing requirements.

However, when someone is exposed to COVID-19 outside of the school walls, as inevitably seems to happen, the complications build up swiftly.

Absences

Students — provided their symptoms aren’t too bad — can make a relatively seamless transition to virtual instruction, but it’s hard to be a virtual custodian or food service worker.

Staff absences due to COVID-19 diagnosis, exposure, symptoms have been significant, as has the number of staff taking leave to care for family members.

Those diagnosed with COVID-19 are required to stay home for 10 days to avoid spreading the disease to others. Those exposed must wait 14 days to see if they become contagious. Those with symptoms are required to stay home for three days while they scope out the source of their fevers, aches, and cough and ascertain that it isn’t the coronavirus.

With many staffers caring for young children, or even a sick spouse or other family member, it’s conceivable they could be out on leave for some time.

Jefferson schools Superintendent Mark Rollefson reported that as of last week, the district had recorded five staffers required to go into isolation after being diagnosed with COVID-19. At 10 days each, that amounted to 50 days of impact.

In addition, 26 staffers have been exposed to COVID-19, not necessarily within the school buildings, and had to quarantine. At 14 days each, that amounted to 364 days of impact.

Nine have gone home for three days with COVID-like symptoms, adding another 27 days of absences.

Meanwhile, others have utilized the family leave they’re allowed under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act in order to care for their children or other immediate family members.

Substitutes

Meanwhile, the pool of potential substitutes has shrunk significantly during this era of COVID-19, Rollefson said.

“This has been an issue for the last decade or so,” the superintendent said.

The district didn’t have a large pool of substitutes to begin with, and a lot of the subs the district relied on in the past skew older, many of them retired teachers.

Many of these have made the decision not to come into the school buildings right now for health reasons, Rollefson said.

And others weren’t completely up on technological advances and didn’t feel up to handing two populations of students simultaneously — the face-to-face students in the room with them plus several others joining the class virtually.

COVID-19 closures

Staffing was one of the major considerations as district officials made the decision last Friday to shift to all-virtual instruction for all students, from 4-year-old kindergarten through high school.

It was not the only concern, of course. The big looming consideration was the rate of COVID-19 transmission around the county, which is classified as “very high” and is still climbing.

In fact, Jefferson County Health Director Gail Scott sent out a cautionary notice Tuesday alerting residents of actions they could take to “mitigate” the high level of community spread the county was seeing.

Rollefson said that a lot of parents and community members have contacted him to ask why the decision was made to close schools now, when the number of COVID-19 cases in the area has been concerning for some time.

“Two weeks ago, we were right at that pivotal point,” he said.

At that time, the district shifted to virtual learning for Jefferson High School only while elementary and middle school students continued as they had been — attending in person with some students joining virtually.

The high school students had returned for a whopping two days — last Thursday and Friday — before the decision was made to shift to virtual instruction for the whole district.

He did note that even during these building closures, the district has provided “Safe Access” for the most needy students so they can use the school Wi-Fi to do their virtual work.

“I’ve been asked why that decision was announced so late on a Friday,” Rollefson said. “I want to clarify it was not intentional. That decision was not made lightly — it represented a tremendous amount of thought, effort and communication.”

Others have questioned why the district chose to go all-virtual for three weeks, rather than the more typical two. Rollefson noted that the third week is a short week and involves a previously scheduled staff development day and annual vacation day.

Students are slated to return to the school buildings in November, when hopefully the number of local cases will have dropped.

Seeking solutions

As the district moves ahead with what has already been a very strange and challenging year, officials are working to find solutions to fully staff the schools during the pandemic so that students can receive face-to-face instruction.

One thing the district has done is to cut way back on professional development. In the past, a number of teachers would be out on a regular basis for conferences or specialized training, and the district could absorb those absences. Now, many of the conferences are cancelled, but the district is not taking advantage of a lot of virtual training opportunities too because it needs teachers in their classrooms and staffers in their positions.

Looking out into the future, the district is working with the Department of Public Instruction and the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater to see if it’s possible to get student teachers to fill positions on a temporary basis.

To help staffers who have young children at home, the district is also looking at ways to provide child care on-site so those staff members can continue in their teaching or support positions.

“Two of our main topics when we meet as an administrative team are how to reduce our exposure rates and increase the pool of candidates to serve as substitutes,” Rollefson said.

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