The Chequamegon School district has reported a handful of confirmed cases of the coronavirus affecting students or staff over the past week.
District Administrator Mark Weddig on Tuesday said he could not provide a running tally of confirmed cases for risk of identifying individuals, as well as the burden it would cause administratively.
When asked to confirm if there were two cases, he said that number was "very close."
"I can tell you that the only school that has been affected by a positive case is the high school," Weddig wrote in response to emailed questions.
The district sent an email to enrolled families on Sept. 24 confirming at least one case had been detected but did not identify in which school until another case or cases were confirmed in a second email Sept.
27. In that email, the district identified the high school. Weddig said he decided to change the communication on the second email because he didn't think it would put identification of the individual or individuals at risk.
"I can tell you that only one contact has been traced to the school setting, and then was quarantined," said Weddig. "Others have been quarantined based on contact outside of school activities. This is great news for the school and community, because it means that the incredible resources and planning we put into the Roadmap for Reentry are working well, so far."
According to a statement by the district, if a child had close contact with the confirmed case, parents will be contacted by the health department. If there was no close contact with the confirmed case, parents were not contacted.
The district is continuing with its reentry plan in the "blended phase 2" scenario, which has elementary students in school each day, but a rotation of middle and high school students on opposite days of the week and Wednesday as completely at home.
While students are in the schools, social distancing is a priority, with students eating meals six feet apart in their classrooms, or spread out in the cafeteria. The hall ways are marked with one-way traffic lines and classes are staggered to keep groups of kids out of the hallways at the same time as well as rotations on the playground. Social distancing is also a priority on the school buses and masks are required.
Weddig said this detailed separation helps to break groups up to the point that if there was a positive in the school and a group of students would be deemed close contacts — within six feet of each other for 15 minutes or more — it would not affect even an entire grade, and students could continue to come to school.
"Add to this the fact that we are teaching live all day, and there is a tremendous effort taking place on sanitizing (we have spared no expense for equipment and added personnel) procedures, and I believe we are doing everything reasonable to keep this disease out of the schools," Weddig wrote.
For the district to shift gears into an all virtual scenario, Weddig said the plan calls for a few criteria to be met. He said, for example, if the school does not have enough staff to teach anymore, or the county health officer deems the school a threat to the community, those would be causes to change the plan.
"As of right now, it is as safe as possible to send students to school due to the plan we have in place, he said. "The rest, in my opinion, is up to the community and how people behave."
In the space of a week, new cases of COVID-19 in Price County have more than tripled, standing at 59 active cases as of Monday afternoon — up from 16 on Sept. 28. As of Monday, there were three Price County residents hospitalized due to complications of the virus.
All individuals who test positive for the virus must self-isolate within their houses for 10 days from the onset of symptoms, unless their condition deteriorates to the point they need to be hospitalized. To be considered non-contagious, a person's symptoms must be steadily improving and they need to have been fever-free for three consecutive days without fever-suppressing medication.
The county has now had a total of 114 confirmed cases of the virus, 55 of which have recovered. A total of seven people have been hospitalized for symptoms related to the virus since the start of the pandemic. According to information released by the Wisconsin Department of Health based on census tracts, the majority of cases have occurred in southeastern Price County and northern Price County, followed by the west central portion of the county. There have been 13 confirmed cases in southwestern Price County and eight in central Price County.
After months of low case numbers, it has been difficult to pinpoint a specific cause of the spike in cases, according to Price County Public Health Officer Michelle Edwards. The spread appears to be originating from social gatherings of all sizes, both public and private, and has been exacerbated by high numbers of close contacts.
A close contact is defined as anyone who spends 15 or more accumulative minutes within a six-foot radius of a contagious person within a 24-hour period. The person may not be aware they are contagious at the time of interaction, since the virus can be present without symptoms for several days.
"When this [pandemic] first started, we were recommending people keep to about five close contacts, and we are getting many many more than that," said Edwards.
After receiving notice that there has been a confirmed
case of the virus in the county, public health department employees reach out to that individual and create a list of all close contacts. Each of those close contacts is called by phone, notified they are a close contact, referred for testing, and informed they should quarantine in their homes for 14 days. Public health employees continue to remain in daily contact with each of those individuals — both the confirmed case and close contacts — to monitor symptoms.
With the spike in cases and correlated increase of close contacts to notify, the amount of time Price County Public Health's four nurses are spending on contact tracing is quickly spiraling out of control.
Public health staff are currently working approximately 10 hours a day, seven days a week — and even so are falling behind on calling all the close contacts.
"In the past when we learned that there was a positive case in the county, we would contact them and their close contacts within a single day," explained Edwards. "Now it's taking two or three days before we even get around to calling them."
In order to try to keep up with the contact tracing, Edwards said the department plans to hire limited term employees to assist with the labor — hopefully within the week since new cases continue to accumulate each day.
The rise in cases cannot be linked to community spread in the county's three K-12 schools, according to Edwards, although each school has had at least one confirmed case of the virus in a student or staff member.
"For the positives we've had in the schools, none of their close contacts in school have tested positive," Edwards explained.
Neither are the cases linked to college students who may test positive while on campuses outside of Price County. While their primary address may be listed as Price County, any positives that occur in someone living outside of the county for an extended period of time will be attributed to the county they currently reside in. Even if an error is made and the positive is attributed to Price County, Edwards said that the error would be discovered and corrected during the follow-up phone calls conducted by the health department.
Local clinics continue to offer daily drive-through testing, according to Edwards.
Regional case numbers continue to grow
Of the neighboring counties that are reporting their active case numbers, Oneida County is leading the pack with 127 currently active cases. There have been a total of 453 confirmed cases since the start of the pandemic and 304 recoveries. Complications of the virus have resulted in 25 hospitalizations and two deaths. There have been 8,533 negative test results in the county.
Lincoln County currently has 84 currently active cases. There have been 229 confirmed cases and 144 recoveries. Complications of the virus have resulted in 19 hospitalizations and one death. There have been 4,965 negative tests.
Vilas County currently has 68 active cases. The county has documented 224 confirmed cases since the start of the pandemic, 115 of which have recovered. The virus has resulted in four hospitalizations and one death. There have been 4,892 negative test results.
Sawyer County has had 214 confirmed cases, 23 of which are active, and 190 of which have recovered. The county reports it is monitoring an additional 103 individuals for symptoms. There has been one death and eight hospitalizations. A total of 4,541 tests have returned negative.
Rusk County has had a total of 65 confirmed cases, 17 of which are active, and 48 of which have recovered. There has been one death attributed to the virus. A total of 2,416 tests have returned negative.
Iron County has had 141 confirmed cases of the virus and 136 recoveries. The county has not released current information on active cases. There have been seven hospitalizations and one death attributed to the virus. A total of 1,497 tests have returned negative.
Taylor County has had 191 confirmed cases of the virus, and four deaths attributed to the virus. A total of 2,839 tests have returned negative. No current information has been released on recoveries or active cases.
Ashland County has had 132 confirmed cases of the virus, and is actively monitoring 293 individuals for symptoms of the virus. A total of 40 people have recovered, and there have been seven hospitalizations and two deaths. A total of 4,678 tests have returned negative.
As of Monday, a total of 1,522,965 Wisconsinites have tested positive for the virus, 96,727 of which have recovered. There have been 1,405,377 negative test results. There are 19,560 active cases in the state. The virus has been attributed as the cause of 1,283 deaths and 7,142 hospitalizations in Wisconsin.
As of Sept. 21, high school students in the Phillips School District are now able to attend in-person classes two days a week; up from the one-day a week per high school student model that had been in place since the start of school on Sept. 1.
At the start of the school year, the district had divided the high school student body into four groups, and each group had been able to attend school in person on either Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, or Friday. Now students can attend school on either Monday and Thursday or Tuesday and Friday. For the other two days that students are not attending class in person, they virtually attend classes being taught in real time by teachers in the classroom at Phillips High School. For all students in the district, Wednesday is a day spent working independently from home on school projects.
Since the start of the school year, high school students in advanced classes with low enrollment numbers have been able to attend school daily to participate in those individual classes — an option that still limited the amount of time any one student spends within the school buildings.
School administration also makes exceptions for special education or at-risk students who are struggling in the virtual environment, and there are currently approximately 35 high school students in this category who attend school in person up to four days a week.
Phillips students in 4K attend school two days a week, while students from kindergarten through eighth grade attend school in person four days out of the week. There have been changes from a normal school year in how students interact with each other and other classrooms in order to limit the number of close contacts any one student has. This has not changed since the start of school.
The purpose of limiting the number of students in the school buildings at any one time is to reduce the number of close contacts any one individual may encounter in the course of a school day. This way, if a member of staff or student tests positive for COVID-19, it will reduce the amount of contact tracing required and hopefully mitigate
the spread of the virus, according to district administrator Rick Morgan.
School administration designed this educational model prior to the start of the school year with the input of the Price County Public Health Department, with the goal of increasing in-person instruction hours as the year progresses.
As of Aug. 17, the Phillips School Board of Education voted 8-1 approving this option. Board member Joe Fox cast the sole dissenting vote, stating he believed the school should return to a normal five-day, fully in-person schedule.
School board discusses Return to Learn plan
The topic of increasing the high school in-person classes from one to two days a week per student was an agenda item at the Sept. 21 school board meeting.
Morgan recommended that the district remain in the blended virtual and in-person format the district had begun the school year in and continue to gradually increase in-person education hours unless a direct connection is made between increasing COVID-19 case numbers and the school district.
"If we increase to two days in-person education for each high school student, it is my belief we should remain in that mode for at least three weeks to see if it makes a difference," Morgan told the school board.
According to Price County Public Health Officer Michelle Edwards, who was in attendance at the meeting, it is the rec ommendation of public health that the school refrain from returning to a fully in-person classroom setting since that would multiply the number of close contacts if a positive were to be confirmed in the district.
Fox raised several points of contention with the plan, questioning the district for increasing the number of in-person days in the high school while COVID-19 case numbers are the highest they've been in the county — while simultaneously stating he believes the school should return to offering a full five-day in-person school week, allowing parents the opportunity to choose whether their children should return in-person or attend virtually.
Fox also made an allegation that some teachers were retaliating against students if their parents complained — a statement that received criticism from some of his fellow board members, who felt the comment was out of line without facts to back it up.
In an interview with the Review following the meeting, Morgan responded to Fox's claim, saying, "I think it's important that we treat our school community — students, staff, parents — with the utmost respect and responsibility, and if a situation like this were to occur, it would be immediately addressed and rectified. And that doesn't just pertain to the situation this year, but any time."
Morgan told the Review that should any parents have concerns, they should immediately contact him to address the issue. Morgan can be reached by phone at 715 339-2419 extension 2001 or by email at email@example.com.
At the Sept. 21 board meeting, Fox also claimed that the reason the school administration chose to go with a blended virtual/in-person option was due to a letter sent by the teachers' union, demanding the school not return to in-person classes.
Morgan stated no such letter had ever been received, and told the Review that while input was sought out and accepted from all members of staff at Phillips School District, there were no demands placed on administration.
Board member Stephen Willett voiced concerns about the blended educational model, saying that while he understands the health concern, there are also uncertainties regarding how effective this mode of education is for students.
Other board members spoke in favor of the blended learning option, while acknowledging they too would prefer a fully in-person model if that seemed like a safe option.
"I would rather have a kid in school four days a week in the elementary school or two days a week in high school, rather than not having them coming in at all," commented board president Jon Pesko.
Board member Tracie Burkart said that it is a positive that the school has made it three weeks in-session with the youngest students attending four days a week and a blend of virtual and inperson at the high school.
Board member Heidi Halmstad echoed this, voicing support for following the guidance of the health department and school administration as the year progresses.
Principals Dave Scholz (elementary) and Colin Hoogland (middle/high school) took the opportunity to comment.
Scholz said his greatest concern is that if the district moves too quickly and is forced to go fully virtual, the youngest students will suffer educationally since it is difficult if not impossible for them to learn in that environment.
"These are our children — we all want them to be here five days a week," said Hoogland. "I'm so happy to see these kids in our hallways now, and they're happy to be here. We can argue what we want but when you see the kids participating, they're choosing to take that risk. What we're doing here is trying to balance — and everybody seems to draw their line at a different place — but we're trying to keep the most kids and staff healthy for the longest amount of time that we possibly can. And we are prepared that if we need to return to real-time virtual, it will be much improved over last year. We don't want that to happen, but we are prepared for it."
A motion was made by Fox that the school returns to five full days of in-person education per week.
"This is a false choice," Fox said. "We are not forcing any parents to send their kids to school, but you're forcing parents to not send them to school. That's what you are making a decision on by not allowing kids to come to school.
"New York schools of our size are going to school more days a week than we are. Where is the pandemic? The pandemic is in your mind."
The motion failed without a second.
No formal action was taken by the school board other than to voice support for the district to move forward with the two-days a week option for high schoolers. The school board will continue to receive regular updates on the school's progress at their monthly meetings.
Morgan also noted the situation will continue to be reviewed every two weeks with Price County Public Health.
Positive cases confirmed in school
Since the discussion held by the Phillips School Board of Education on Sept. 21, three positive cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in students and staff at Phillips School District.
According to school administrator Rick Morgan, the school's blended virtual and in-person learning plan has allowed the district to minimize the number of close contacts and prevented the need to close the school or suspend classes for a period of time.
According to Price County Public Health Officer Michelle Edwards, limiting the number of close contacts also appears to be reducing the spread within the school district since none of the individuals' close contacts at school have been confirmed to have the virus as of Monday.
In order to keep the community informed of the cases occurring in the school district, an informational data page will be added to the Phillips School District website (www.phillips.k12. wi.us) and will be updated daily with information pertaining to confirmed cases, close contacts, etc. The district planned to publish that information page on Sept. 30.