Schools buckle under relentless Covid-19 assault

Four area districts close classrooms, others remain open with hundreds quarantined as virus continues to surge

Classrooms will soon be empty in several area school districts that are closing their buildings and switching to online instruction temporarily because of the pandemic, particularly the number of teachers and other staff members that are quarantined.
Ozaukee Press staff

Under a relentless assault from Covid-19, several area school districts are being forced to close their classrooms and teach children online while others are managing to stay open for now despite having hundreds of students and staff members quarantined at home. 

For the most part, districts have prevented the virus from spreading unchecked through schools with complex and time-consuming notification and contact tracing procedures even as the spread of Covid-19 in their communities has reached critically high levels. But some school systems are running out of teachers and other staff members who are quarantined after testing positive for Covid-19 or having contact with someone who has. 

And rather than reason for hope there is increasing cause for concern. While schools have been able to avoid outbreaks within their buildings, extracurricular activities have contributed to the increasing spread of the virus, Bailey Murph, the Washington Ozaukee Public Health Department’s senior public health strategist, said Tuesday. That is of particular concern now as schools transition from fall sports that are primarily played outside to winter sports like basketball and wrestling that are played indoors where Covid-19 is more easily spread. 

Thanksgiving next week and Christmas only a month later also worry officials who fear family gatherings will increase transmission of the virus and push schools closer to their tipping points. 

St. John XXIII Catholic School in Port Washington reached that point last week when eight of its 30 staff members could not work in-person because they were quarantined. The school closed its classrooms on Wednesday, Nov. 11, and began online teaching the next day. It started a phased reopening this week.

“With less than 60% of staff present, a decision had to be made,” Principal Kristi Klein said. “Our goal is to be open and provide face-to-face instruction as much as possible, but it was unmanageable.”

That was the first time this school year that St. John XXIII had to close, but in doing so it joined the ranks of many other schools.

“All schools are experiencing this right now,” Klein said, noting that during a meeting with school superintendents throughout the archdiocese, several officials told her she should be celebrating that this was her first school shutdown.

The Northern Ozaukee School District announced this week it will close schools and switch to online teaching beginning next week with the goal of returning to in-person learning on Monday, Dec. 7.

“Unfortunately, because of the high number of staff absences and the significant impact of Covid-19 on the school community, we need to temporarily switch to remote learning,” Supt. Dave Karrels wrote in a letter to parents.

With more than 20% of its staff members unable to work in schools, the Random Lake School District, which includes areas of the Town of Fredonia, closed its classrooms and resumed online-only instruction Monday. 

“Unfortunately, our staff has been hit hard by cases of Covid-19,” Supt. Mike Trimberger wrote in a letter to parents.

The district hopes to resume in-person classes on Monday, Nov. 30, but Trimberger pointed out that depends on efforts to control the spread of Covid-19.

“Please help us reach our goal of resuming and maintaining in-person instruction by continuing to be diligent in doing your part to keep your family healthy and safe, especially during the Thanksgiving holiday,” he wrote. 

The Cedarburg School District will close schools and switch to online instruction on Friday, Nov. 20, with the hope of reopening on Monday, Dec. 7, a move Supt. Todd Bugnacki attributed to the spread of the virus in the community caused by people who don’t follow health guidelines.

“Every effort has been made to keep our schools operating, but the prevalence of the virus in the community is contributing to more staff and student isolations and quarantines than the system can handle,” Bugnacki wrote in a letter to parents. “Contact tracing has revealed that social gatherings and parties have resulted in the exponential spread of the virus, which is severely impacting our daily operations.”

Two of Ozaukee County’s other larger school systems — the Port Washington-Saukville and Grafton school districts — have not had to close schools this school year. 

As of Friday, Nov. 13, 15 students and nine staff members in the Port Washington-Saukville School District had Covid-19 and 400 of its 2,500 students were quarantined because of possible contact with the virus, Supt. Michael Weber said.  

The district began the school year and continues to operate under what administrators call a hybrid model, with high school and middle school students split into two groups that attend classes on two different days a week and learn online three days a week to allow for social distancing in schools. Elementary school students attend classes four days a week. All school are closed on Wednesday for deep cleaning.

The hybrid schedule has helped the district battle the pandemic, Weber said, but it has not made it immune to the health crisis. 

Substitute teachers are in short supply, and the five regular subs the district has are essentially working full time now, Weber said. 

Teachers, he said, have dealt with the situation by being creative. In some cases, educators who are quarantined teach students who are in classrooms online while a staff member monitors the classrooms. In other cases, teachers in school provide instruction for both the students who are with them in classrooms and those who are quarantined at home at the same time using technology.

“We are doing everything we can to keep our students and our staff healthy while at the same time keeping school going,” Weber said. 

In the Grafton School District, which resumed full-time classes in September, there were 210 students and 14 staff members quarantined as of Tuesday. 

Like the Port-Saukville School District, the Grafton School District is using technology to educate students online whether they or their teachers are at home, Supt. Jeff Nelson said. 

The district has also hired a dedicated substitute teacher for each of its schools and increased the hours its part-time teachers and paraprofessionals are working to fill in for quarantined staff members, Nelson said. 

Increasing stress on schools comes as no surprise as Ozaukee and Washington counties remain at critically high risk for Covid-19 transmission, with 100 to 150 people testing positive in the two counties every day, Murph said.

As of Tuesday, Ozaukee County reported 4,121 confirmed cases of Covid-19, with 1,199 of those active. Of those cases, 2,892 people have recovered from the virus and 30 have died.

Murph said much of the cause is community spread, particularly with events such as weddings and funerals.

“We’re a little worried about the upcoming holiday season,” she said.

The counties have increased their testing capacity but limited contact tracing, Murph said, to concentrate on cases associated with schools, long-term care facilities and business outbreaks.

Despite long lines, Ozaukee County’s free testing site was able to keep up with demand last week, Murph said, noting that as many as 450 tests are conducted each day.

The county has added one additional day of testing, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday, Nov. 20, at the Transit Services Building, 410 S. Spring St., Port Washington.

The county’s other free testing clinics will be held from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays, Nov. 21 and Dec. 5, at the Transit Services Building. 

Testing, which is for people ages 5 and older, will be closed earlier if the county reaches its 450 test limit.

Murph said the department is urging people to register online at, although they may also register at the testing site.

She said the department is urging people to be patient and not let their guard down.

“Anecdotally, we know people are tired of complying with the mask mandate and socially distancing,” Murph said. “This is the time it’s really critical. While not 100% effective, they really help limit the spread.”

Ozaukee Press reporter Joe Poirier contributed to this story.



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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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