‘There’s no playbook’: School districts with positive COVID-19 cases plan for flexibility

PARDEEVILLE, Wis. – Since the start of the semester, several area school districts have switched from in-person to virtual learning following positive COVID-19 cases among students or staff.

On Monday, the Pardeeville Area School District had one positive case connected to the high school and two to the elementary school. It closed both buildings as staff worked on contact tracing. The Belmont Community School District also announced it would switch to virtual learning for the rest of the week after a second student tested positive for COVID-19.

On the same day, the Janesville School District put out a release that Adams Elementary School is pivoting to virtual instruction because too many staff members are currently being quarantined after being identified as a close contact of others who have tested positive. It has two additional schools temporarily closed following positive cases.

Staffing is one of the reasons Pardeeville’s elementary school building will remain closed until Oct. 12, with a number of staff members who may have come in contact with the virus.

“The biggest issue is we didn’t have enough staff, subs to cover those people who had been quarantined,” Superintendent Gus Knitt said, adding that contact tracing has cleared the high school to reopen Thursday.

Knitt said that the cases didn’t come from within the school and can likely be tied to the recent statewide uptick. He wasn’t surprised that they had to shut down buildings this semester and suspected it could happen again once they reopen. He said reopening will involve deep cleaning.

“We know face-to-face is what’s best for kids, so we’re trying to do that face-to-face instruction, but also be conscious of the fact that we’re in a COVID pandemic and trying to make sure we keep everyone healthy. It’s that constant balancing act,” he said. “We try to make sure we are prepared to make that transition as smooth as possible when we have to go all-virtual.”

For some school districts in our area, reopening school buildings after COVID-19 cases comes with the knowledge that they may end up having to close and switch to virtual learning again.

Posted by Madalyn O’Neill on Monday, September 28, 2020

“There’s no playbook for it,” said Lenny Lueck, Brodhead School District superintendent.

The state’s Department of Health Services has released guidelines, but without much past experience, Lueck and his team could only plan to be flexible.

“We worked all summer to have a three-tiered plan,” he said.

At the start of the semester, the district decided on all face-to-face instruction, but quickly shifted to all virtual learning at the high school when several students tested positive for the coronavirus following a gathering the weekend before school started. In the end, 23 students tested positive.

“We got to see how fast something like that can spread,” Lueck said. “(It) would’ve been out of control if we wouldn’t have shut everything down.”

After three weeks of closure, the Brodhead High School will reopen at 50% capacity this week with a blended instruction model, following more deep cleaning and no more evidence of virus transmission. Lueck said that all the students who initially tested positive will be cleared and out of quarantine and numerous staff members have tested negative.

He said the temporary switch to virtual was fairly seamless, and it’s one he expects the district may have to make again.

“Every school has to deal with it at some point, sadly,” Lueck said.

Even once the high school reopens, students in the Brodhead School District can choose to continue virtual learning.