State officials recommend school districts track COVID-19 vaccinations, but not all are

MADISON, Wis. – It’s no question that the pandemic veered schools off their normal course.

“I feel like we’ve made some really good decisions even though they’re tough and not everyone agrees with them,” said Josh Sween, going into his second full year as superintendent at the Portage Community School District. “It’s been a good ride.”

At this point, the question becomes how to make it through another year with COVID-19 as a backdrop. Sween wants to bring safety to the forefront.

“It is a personal choice, but I think as a school district we need to encourage people to get vaccinated,” he said.

Though vaccination is not mandatory, about 84% of his district staff members have gotten the shot. During registration, families will be asked to voluntarily report if their students received the vaccine. That helps with contact tracing, keeping students in school and activities such as sports if they’re vaccinated and well.

“Last year, if you were a close contact, you may not even be sick, but you’re out for 14 days,” Sween said. “If you get the vaccine this year, you can stay as long as you don’t have any symptoms or you don’t get sick, so that’s a huge added benefit.”

At this time, no district in the state is requiring vaccines for staff members, though Milwaukee Public Schools are considering it. Districts also can’t require eligible students to get the COVID-19 vaccine because it’s not a mandatory immunization like several others in the state.

Districts can, however, track student and staff vaccinations. In fact, state health officials are asking them to do so.

DHS recommends COVID-19 vaccine tracking

This year’s COVID-19 prevention guidance from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services directs schools to “establish a process for collecting, maintaining, and using COVID-19 vaccination information using the same standard protocols that are used to collect and secure other immunization or health status information.

“Many recommended COVID-19 prevention strategies rely on having knowledge of the vaccination status of students, teachers and staff,” the guidance from August reads, going on to state that any practice should comply with relevant laws including the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

In Beloit, Superintendent Dan Keyser is looking forward to students returning to the classroom, even with masks.

“I’m going to be seeing their smiling eyes and spring in their step as they walk into their classrooms,” Keyser said.

He said the Rock County Health Department is keeping track of student vaccinations.

“That helps us measure and gauge where student vaccination rates are and what community spread is,” Keyser said.

In the case of a close contact, Beloit school nurses can access the Wisconsin Immunization Registry for students to provide the right guidance depending on their vaccination status. That’s something Sween said Portage school nurses can do, as well.

The state’s Department of Public Instruction notes that quarantine guidelines are based on vaccination status, and encourages school districts to “seek parent/family permission to access student COVID vaccination status via the WIR, as COVID vaccination is not a required vaccine.”

“The delta variant is much more contagious and spreads more rapidly,” said Louise Wilson, the state school nurse and health services consultant with DPI, who developed the 2021/2022 COVID-19 Infection Control and Mitigation Measures. “We’re an educational agency. We want to see schools stay open and be successful.”

News 3 Now sent a survey to the about 75 districts in our area. Of the 19 that responded, nearly half had no tracking plan in place or were still deciding at the time of the survey.

Middleton Cross Plains Area, Stoughton Area and the Madison Metropolitan School Districts are among those that won’t be tracking COVID-19 vaccinations.

“For one, we don’t have the ability to do so,” said Tim LeMonds, public information officer with MMSD, when asked about tracking.

LeMonds said they don’t have a system in place currently because they don’t plan to mandate staff vaccinations at this time and the state hasn’t mandated COVID-19 vaccinations for students.

“Therefore, we have not determined what resources we would use to track staff on whether they have been vaccinated or not if we did go that route,” he said.

DHS guidance said “if the school is not tracking the COVID-19 vaccination status of students, teachers, and staff, screening testing is encouraged.”

MMSD will not have a system in place for regular testing, LeMonds said because they don’t have the resources in terms of staffing or equipment.

He noted that all districts are different as they navigate the ever-changing landscape of the pandemic.

“We really are relying on our health services department to make all those determinations and contacts as far as tracking and quarantining,” LeMonds said. “There’s never an easy answer to this.”

In Portage, Sween hopes to get back on track and stay there.

“I do believe vaccination is a big part of our push to get kids back in school, to keep the schools open, keep them here in person,” he said.