JEFFERSON — With positive cases of COVID-19 rising in Jefferson County, parent Nick Sawyer appeared before the School District of Jefferson Board of Education Monday to ask what it’s going to take before schools go virtual.
A parent of East Elementary School students, Sawyer said that COVID-19 rates in the county are several times than the number at which the county’s epidemiologist originally had recommended that schools transition to remote learning.
Jefferson schools Superintendent Mark Rollefson agreed that COVID levels were indeed quite concerning, but that was not the only factor that went into the decision of whether to close face-to-face classes.
When considering whether it’s better to move to all-virtual instruction for a particular school or the district as a whole, Rollefson said the district must weigh numerous factors.
Along with the prevalence of COVID-19 in the surrounding community, the district must consider the number of positive cases among students and staff, the number of exposures among students and staff, staffing levels — which have at times this fall been critically affected by COVID-19 and related absences — the stress on local hospitals, and whether student and staff cases can be traced to the schools or whether they originated elsewhere.
Since September, the Jefferson school district has recorded 67 cases among students, although it’s possible some cases have not been recorded, especially if they were asymptomatic.
Recorded student exposures, meanwhile, have amounted to 591 since the start of school.
The number of Jefferson school staffers testing positive for COVID-19 so far this year is 14 while 71 staff members have been exposed and had to go into quarantine.
In Jefferson County, 5,142 people have had the virus since March. Across the state, 375,837 have had the virus.
To provide a “snapshot in time,” Rollefson noted that last Wednesday, the Jefferson schools recorded 55 staff absences, 34 of them due to COVID-19. Of the remainder, 10 were vacant, unfilled positions, and the rest of them were due to other illnesses, maternity leave and other such routine absences.
While many teachers who are absent due to COVID-19 exposure or who have tested positive for the coronavirus can continue to teach remotely, other positions require the worker to be on-site, such as janitorial and food service posts.
And even when a teacher is running their class remotely, a staff member still has to be present in that room to oversee that classroom and keep in-person students in line.
Stress on local hospitals is an important factor right now, Rollefson said. Earlier in the school year, the hospitals were busy but not at capacity, but during this current COVID-19 surge, hospital officials are communicating that space is very tight.
Across the state, hospital bed capacity is at 83 percent, according to the Department of Health Services.
Another important factor is whether the disease is actually being passed on in the schools.
Certainly, students and staffers come to school and later find they’re infected with COVID-19. However, virtually no in-school transmission has been found so far this year.
“We’re finding that our COVID-19 protocols are quite effective,” Rollefson said.
Of the last 29 positive COVID-19 cases for students or staff, 24 were determined to have come from an outside source such as a family member, a teammate on a non-school sports team, or out in the community (as with at least one 100% virtual student who did not even enter the school buildings.)
Meanwhile, the other five cases came from an unknown source, and none were traced back to in-school transmission.
Rollefson said that without significant testing, it’s nearly impossible to prove with 100 percent certainty where the transmission took place.
Another factor that goes into the school district’s decision-making process is the impact on parents and families.
That includes availability of daycare for students whose parents work during the day and cannot leave their jobs, internet connectivity, and the reported rise in depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation in parents, staff and students.
Every district in the area has been on the COVID-19 rollercoaster this fall, switching back and forth between in-person and virtual classes in response to virus levels, exposures in the schools, staff absences and other factors.
Fort Atkinson started the year in-person, but just has announced it will remain all-virtual through Jan. 4. Whitewater and Watertown started the year virtual and later switched to face-to-face, Rollefson said.
Oconomowoc started the year with a hybrid system, then, following parent complaints, moved to five-day-a-week in-person classes. That district recently has switched back to the hybrid system due to rising cases.
“I can’t look at any of these school districts and say they have the one right answer,” Rollefson said.
“If county numbers were the only factor, I’d recommend we go virtual,” Rollefson said, assuring Sawyer that the district was monitoring these statistics day-by-day, even hour-by-hour.
At all times, he said, the schools are planning for every eventuality — full virtual, a return to full face-to-face, even a potential hybrid system at the middle and high school levels should that prove the most feasible option.
District decision-makers also are looking at longer-term questions such as what the district will do when the current mask mandate expires; and whether to mandate the vaccine — when it becomes available — for staff, students or both.