Wisconsin school districts are struggling to address the ever-spreading virus, and some are taking action.
When students and staff in the Superior School District returned to school from Christmas break on Jan. 3, face masks were optional, but they became mandatory just one week later as COVID-19 case numbers surged.
During that week, 65 students and 20 staff tested positive for the virus, prompting district officials to implement a mask requirement in school and at after-school activities beginning Wednesday.
In a Jan. 12 letter to parents, District Administrator Amy Starzecki explained that the district’s COVID-19 plan calls for putting virus mitigation strategies in place after two or three weeks of increased case numbers. But with the large case surge and the especially contagious Omicron variant, the mask requirement is necessary now.
“Given what has occurred across the country regarding the new Omicron variant, rates are predicted to continue to increase in our community and it is likely we have not seen the peak in cases yet,” Starzecki said.
Schools across Wisconsin report facing similar difficulties keeping enough teachers and support staff healthy to continue in-person learning as COVID-19 infections occur at their highest rate since the pandemic began nearly two years ago. Children age 18 and younger currently represent the highest number of new positive virus cases.
Many students and educators struggled with virtual instruction last school year, and schools are doing what they can to maintain face-to-face learning this year.
With more students and teachers testing positive for COVID-19 than previously, school districts are taking a range of approaches. A few districts, such as Milwaukee and Madison, began this year with virtual instruction as they struggled to find enough teachers because of high virus transmission.
Others, such as Racine, Green Bay, and Kenosha, have moved some schools to online instruction because of high student infection numbers and a lack of available teachers due to virus spread.
Still other districts have extended mask-wearing requirements or continued previous policies regarding masks and quarantine periods. For instance, the Appleton School District is extending its mask requirement until mid-February, and Eau Claire school officials will maintain a mask mandate previously in effect.
However, many districts do not require masks and have shortened the quarantine period from 10 days to five for those exposed to the virus as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, prompting concerns among many educators. The shorter quarantine time includes strict masking for days six through 10, but parents in some schools say that is not happening when students return to school.
“We are hearing this all across the state,” Wisconsin Education Association Council spokeswoman Christina Brey said of rising COVID-19 infections and challenges maintaining face-to-face instruction. “Many smaller schools … are struggling because they can’t cover the classes adequately due to so many staff being out and a lack of substitutes.”
Not requiring masks and shortening quarantine periods without masking runs counter to the practices public health officials are recommending.
On Monday, Gov. Tony Evers and the state Department of Health Services (DHS) urged schools to utilize face masks and other measures to limit virus transmission to continue face-to-face instruction. The letter notes the “unprecedented surge in COVID-19 cases in Wisconsin.”
During a press conference in conjunction with DHS on Thursday, Evers touted DHS’ efforts to offer testing in schools. More than 26,000 tests for students have been administered so far.
“Testing remains a critical component of slowing the spread of COVID-19,” he said.
Larger districts are experiencing difficulty keeping enough staff healthy to teach students as well. In the Eau Claire School District, Superintendent Mike Johnson has periodically been filling in for teachers absent because of COVID-19 infection or exposure, and was busy with that task Thursday.
In an email sent Monday to parents of district students, Johnson spelled out the challenges of maintaining in-person teaching as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to climb. As of last week, 37 district staff tested positive for the virus and two were quarantined. A total of 136 students had recorded positive tests and 557 were quarantined.
“With the increased spread of the variant, we have more student and staff absences,” Johnson wrote. “…Staffing shortages due to illness are growing and jeopardizing our ability to fill absences.”
Julian Emerson A fixture in west central Wisconsin journalism for over a quarter-century, Julian specializes in investigative work, politics, and social justice issues.