‘What is the plan?’ Families, public health officials concerned as COVID-19 spreads through schools

MADISON, Wis. — There wasn’t a lot of information in the call that the Kloack family got earlier this week, Emily said, letting them know that the school one of their sons attended had a positive COVID-19 case.

All four of their children attend schools in the Madison Metropolitan School District, ranging from elementary to high school grades. With Emily Kloack immune-compromised, they’re heading into this school year on high alert. One of their children is particularly nervous, as he tracks the disease’s spread around the world.

“He’s very anxious about getting sick,” his mother Emily noted.

The family says MMSD had done a good job in protections the district has implemented. But in at least one area, they feel short-changed: the lack of a concrete plan for when schools might have to close.

“What is the plan?” Emily asked. “If we have that information for that framework, we could prepare better for our children and for our home situation.”

They’ve tried to get that information from the school. No such plan, in fact, exists yet. An MMSD spokesperson says the district is still working to finalize a flowchart plan for the public in the days to come.

“It would just be nice to know,” husband Bryan Kloack explained. The rising numbers in their school district–quarantines for positive cases or close contacts quadrupled in the past week–has them on high alert.

“If this is six days, what’s going to happen at 30 days? What’s gonna happen at 60 days?”

Quarantines nearly double on school COVID-19 trackers 

On September 13, News 3 Now launched a dashboard tracking COVID-19 cases and quarantines in about a dozen school districts around south central and western Wisconsin.

From Monday to Friday, known quarantines for positive cases or close contacts rose from about 700 to almost 1,400 in those districts, although the actual number of quarantines is likely higher. Not all school districts post data for both positive cases and quarantines for close contacts; others hadn’t finished updating their trackers on Friday afternoon.

A big part of the increase can be attributed to the Madison Metropolitan School District, where quarantines quadrupled during that time.

“When you see those numbers increase, especially around the contact tracing, just remind yourself this is what was expected, this is out of precaution,” MMSD spokesperson Tim Lemonds said.

On Friday, the state Department of Health Services reported 410 active outbreak investigations at educational facilities around Wisconsin. An outbreak investigation is prompted by at least two cases; many of the school districts posting their data publicly on dashboards had more than two.

It reflects high levels of spread through Wisconsin communities, the state’s top doctor said. New COVID-19 cases have risen to a level not seen since January.

“The news is bad unfortunately. When you look at our state map, county by county or district by district, we’re really experiencing high levels of spread of the virus everywhere we look,” DHS chief medical officer Dr. Ryan Westergaard said on News 3 Now’s Sunday morning For the Record show.

Outbreak investigations are still determining how much transmission is occurring at schools versus being brought in from the communities. But they’ve already traced some outbreaks directly to school sports, he said.

“We have open schoolwide investigations that we’re helping with at the state health department. We’ve also seen some outbreaks related to sports. Our message to all schools is to use all the prevention strategies that we know work.”

‘Multiple case notifications every hour’: Public health officials mixed on presence of school transmission

Now just shy of three weeks into the school year for many districts, public health officials are mixed on whether transmission is happening yet at schools themselves.

In Jefferson County, a 13-year-old died this week; officials are investigating whether his COVID-19 diagnosis contributed to his death. A public health official says that in this rural county of about 85,000, schools are almost certainly contributing to the infection rate.

“We are getting multiple case notifications every hour,” Samroz Jakvani explained, an epidemiologist and public information officer with the Jefferson County Health Department.

“Schools right now are causing the spread of COVID-19 in Jefferson County. That’s almost undeniable at this point. It’s a huge issue because there’s so many things we can do to prevent this.”

At MMSD, school officials blame the spread on community infection–not school transmission. Public health officials say it’s early to tell.

“Most schools have started their fall instruction over the past 2.5 weeks, and in that time there have been 166 Dane County residents who either attended school while infectious with COVID, or attended shortly before they became infected with COVID and school was a potential source of their exposure,” a spokesperson for Public Health Madison Dane County explained. “Compare that to 1,927 total cases in Dane County during the same time period.”

With the highly-infectious Delta variant now compromising nearly all new cases, Dr. Westergaard says schools should be implementing all possible protective measures–not just some of them.

“All age groups, when you have a generalized epidemic of this highly infectious variant, are at higher risk of getting infected,” he said. “In that setting we’re gonna see a lot more severe cases, because some certain percentage of cases–even among children–can be severe and sometimes fatal.”

For the Kloacks, that’s not a risk they want to take.

“We’re trying to be as vigilant as possible.”