Waunakee Community School District brings third, fourth-graders back to school
Medical experts: Robust contact tracing vital to reopening
WAUNAKEE, Wis. – Third and fourth grade students are back in schools this week in the Waunakee Community School District.
They’re joining Kindergarten through second grade students who have been attending in-person classes in a hybrid model at the three elementary schools since the beginning of the school year. That means half days, off-days on Wednesdays and no lunch or recess.
Tiffany Schultz’s two children’s back-to-school pictures look about the same, but their start to the school year has been different. Her 5-year-old daughter, Brayleigh, has been heading to Kindergarten in person, while her 9-year-old son, Mason, has started off his third grade year completely virtually.
“It was a challenge. The first week he was super excited to go back to school. The excitement of it dwindled quickly,” Schultz said. “It’s not an easy thing, especially for these third graders. They still need parental help.”
On Monday, Mason was able to join his sister on the bus to head to class in person.
“He comes through the door yesterday, ‘Mom I’m home!’, so happy,” Schultz said. “I haven’t seen that attitude from him in the last seven months since they’ve been out of school since March.”
Waunakee Board of Education president David Boetcher said while the district has had positive COVID-19 cases, they’ve been able to keep on top of it enough to allow the additional grades to join the K-2 students currently attending school.
“The fact that we’ve been able to keep those classes in a smaller size, keep the masking and social distancing, and how well these students, especially, and staff have been able to do that is what allowed us to keep going,” he said.
They’ve also put a focus on completing contact tracing with 24 hours.
“We had to hire another contact tracer and another nurse to stay ahead of that,” Boetcher said.
UW-Health’s Dr. Jeff Pothof, a prominent voice in the fight against COVID since the pandemic began, said sufficient contact tracing is what it will take for districts to bring students back safely.
“One district might have the resources to do it and another may not,” Pothof said. “Schools that have robust processes in place, they aren’t really seeing transmission of COVID-19 in schools, but as numbers get higher in the community, they do have to deal with kids who have picked up COVID-19 somewhere else.”
Pothof is on the district’s medical advisory committee. He said the stakes are a bit higher bringing third- and fourth-graders back, but it’s a tradeoff between risks and benefits.
“Different people will put a different value on that in-person education, especially in those younger grades where we know it’s more important, versus the risk of COVID-19,” Pothof said. “I don’t think there’s a clear, right answer, but I don’t think it’s an unreasonable approach as long as you have all those things in place.”
He stressed it’s also important for districts to be ready to switch back to virtual learning if they can’t keep up with contact tracing as community spread increases.
Coronavirus cases have been on the rise in Dane County, spreading outward from Madison to the surrounding area.
“That’s why it’s so critical we know of cases in the community and parents help us with that contact tracing,” Boetcher said, adding that even if a student is staying at home learning virtually, it’s important the district knows if they test positive.
Parents of third and fourth grade students can choose to keep their children learning virtually.
According to Boetcher, the medical advisory committee will meet in a couple weeks to review how everything goes, and the district may consider bringing back additional grades.
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