Full-time school for most even as virus surges

County heath official says only PW-S District is planning staggered schedule; infections among young people rise
Ozaukee Press staff

Despite public health officials’ reservations about potentially spreading the Covid-19 virus, every school district in Ozaukee and Washington counties is planning to go to five-day-a-week, in-person school this fall, except one, Washington Ozaukee Public Health Director Kirsten Johnson told members of the Ozaukee County Health and Human Services Committee on Tuesday. 

“Everyone is going to five days a week except for Port,” she said. “The intention is to go back to school full-time.”

Johnson said she is in almost daily contact with school districts and is working with them to develop their back-to-school plans.

Johnson said she has not made recommendations to districts on their plans, but, when pressed by committee members, admitted she had “concerns,” but is leery of giving advice to school leaders.

“I’m in a really hard position because it’s become so political,” she said, with separate factions lobbying for school attendance to either be limited, if not shut down, or opened normally.

Johnson said her department “strongly supports” having children and teachers wear masks.

“There’s not a lot of data around children” and how the virus affects them or how they serve as carriers of the disease, she said.

“I am more concerned about teachers and parents,” she said.

If a student or teacher is found to have tested positive for Covid-19, Johnson said, the first step would be for her department to talk to the teacher or student’s family and put them in quarantine for 14 days.

They would then contact the school, which would be asked to produce a list of people with whom the student or teacher has been in contact. Her department would reach out to those people or their families, and they would be put in quarantine.

For small children, Johnson said the entire class and teacher would be put in quarantine.

While that is her department’s protocol, she said there’s no guarantee that a school district would follow it.

“I have not given a recommendation one way or another. It’s dependent on the schools,” she said.

Johnson said one her fears is that there will be a “revolving door” of students being quarantined, rejoining school and then being quarantined again as students and staff continue to be tested.

Unlike any of the other 61 districts in Ozaukee and Washington counties, the Port Washington-Saukville district opted for a split schedule at Thomas Jefferson Middle School and Port Washington High School — a plan drafted in consultation with Johnson — to allow for social distancing to protect the health of students and teachers that give the district the best chance of providing in-person learning for as long as possible, district Supt. Michael Weber said. 

With nearly 800 students each at the middle school and high school, social distancing would not have been possible if students returned to classes full time, he said. Now, instead of 25 students per classroom, there will be 10 to 12, and common areas will not be crowded.

“Classrooms are a little bit of a challenge, but the biggest challenge is social distancing in hallways,” Weber said. “At the middle and high schools, we needed to divide the students up to give us the best chance of extending school as long as possible.”

There is more room at the district’s three elementary schools to keep students apart, which is why the district decided on a four-day-a-week schedule at those buildings.

Both elementary schools and middle/high school plans mirror scenarios suggested by the state Department of Public Instruction. None of the DPI scenarios call for a full-time return to school.

The discussion over schools reopening in the fall comes as the number of Covid-19 cases is rising, to 504 in Ozaukee County on Tuesday, up from 436 on July 21.

“We’re heading in the wrong direction,” Johnson told the committee.

Meanwhile the number of negative tests totaled 9,500, up from 8,400 the week before, for an infection rate of about 5.3%. Johnson told the committee those numbers did not include the previous three or four days. 

Johnson attributed the increase in cases mostly to children and young adults — with the 19-to-29 age group accounting for about 25% of the total and the under-19 age group about 10% — as more of them participate in recreational activities, sports and group gatherings.

Johnson said she anticipates the numbers will increase as schools reopen.

“We know the more people in the mix, the more cases we get,” she said in an interview. “We’re seeing that in real time.”

To prepare, Johnson said, her department is hiring more people to do contact tracing, supplementing its force of about 25 by another 12 to 15 people in the coming week.

Those numbers don’t include members of her regular staff who also are doing contact tracing, she said.

The workload for these employees has increased significantly as the pandemic has continued, Johnson noted. Initially, people diagnosed with Covid-19 had three to eight close contacts but today it’s more like 20 to 40 close contacts.

“That’s increased the workload significantly,” she said.

Each initial contact with someone who contracts the coronavirus takes 45 to 75 minutes of staff time, Johnson said, while calls with those people they’ve been in close contact with run 10 to 15 minutes.

Ozaukee Press reporter Kristyn Halbig Ziehm contributed to this report.



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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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