Virtual Learning to Continue Through Semester

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By: 
Cameron Bren

MIDDLETON–The Middleton Cross Plains Area School District (MCPASD) Board of Education voted to continue virtual learning through the semester or until health metrics for returning to in-person learning put out by Public Health Madison Dane County (PHMDC) are met. The board will revisit the decision at its Dec. 7 meeting or schedule a special meeting in the event PHMDC metrics are met.

Superintendent Dana Monogue presented two options for the board to vote on at its Sept. 28 meeting: 

Option one: Remain in virtual model until PHMDC/CDC guidelines are met.

Option two: Bring PreK through second grade students into schools in a blended model starting on Nov. 2 and delay bringing 3-12 students into schools until PHMDC/CDC guidelines are met.

On Aug. 21 PHMDC released health metrics for in-person instruction, which the board committed to following at its Aug. 24 meeting.

Under the guidelines for PreK through second grade there should be a 14-day average 54 cases per day sustained for four weeks. This guideline was met on Aug. 18 but has since been surpassed. PHMDC have been monitoring the cases and have not deemed school closures necessary for districts that returned to in-person instruction at these grade levels. 

For third to fifth grade a 14-day average of 39 cases per day sustained for four weeks and for sixth through twelfth grade a 14-day average of 19 cases per day sustained for four weeks, neither of which have been met. 

Monogue says because of an injunction placed on Dane County’s health order by the state Supreme Court on Sept. 10, the PHMDC metrics are no longer enforceable. 

The most recent data was pulled from the Department of Health Services indicate new cases emerging in all but two census tracts in the district.

Monogue noted that while the county reached its highest number of positive tests in the second week of September new cases have since been declining and hospitalizations and ICU visits have remained mostly stagnant. 

Pediatric Infectious Disease Fellow in the Department of Pediatrics at UW Hospital Dr. Kathryn Schmit attended the board meeting as a medical expert to answer questions for the board. 

Board member Sean Hyland asked which data sets the district should be looking most closely at. Schmit said all data should be taken into account though different data sets indicate different phenomenon.

Board member Paul Kinne asked if the PHMDC guidelines regarding masks, cleaning procedures and social distancing are enforceable. Monogue said that is the case. 

Kinne asked Schmidt to explain the term viral load. Schmit said a higher viral load means more virus particles are present in the body making the disease more transferable. Children tend to be carriers of viral diseases and can transmit it to others, Schmit said. With COVID-19 children have less symptoms and are evidently less infectious though scientists do not yet fully understand the correlation between symptoms and infection rate in children, she added. 

In both children and adults, the incubation period is between three and 14 days though typically five to six days. Schmit said that means signs of spread should emerge in about a week once large groups begin coming together.

Board member Katy Morgan asked about the long-term effects of COVID-19. Schmit cited reports of adults having long term cardiac or respiratory issues. From pediatric standpoint there is not yet enough data though cases have been reported with some children having inflammation in multiple organ systems.  

Board member Bob Green asked how the district can keep staff safe. Schmit said enforcing social distancing measures and wearing personal protective equipment is the best mitigation but transmission from kids to teachers is definite risk.

Morgan asked if there is any way to differentiate COVID-19 symptoms from other common illnesses. Schmidt said the only way is to take a COVID-19 test.

Board president Annette Ashley asked if Schmit she could speak to the social and emotional effects of virtual learning. Schmit said she was an expert in infectious disease but assured that both aspects are important.

Morgan asked about encore teachers becoming super spreaders because they could be seeing 600 students per week in different schools. Schmit said that could be the case but noted personal protective equipment and social distancing would do a lot to mitigate that.

Green asked if the district should consider the spread of infection outside the school buildings. Schmit said it is equally important to consider community spread.

Board member Anne Bauer listed several examples of schools that have opened with the same protocols in place and had to close again because of a spike in cases. She asked why MCPASD would be exceptional. Schmit said she would have to review the specifics of each case to be certain. 

Before moving to a vote each board member shared their thoughts on the choice before them. 

Todd Smith said he supports option two because he is convinced it is time to bring kids back to school with mitigation protocols in place and PreK-2 in-person instruction is supported by PHMDC. He said while virtual learning is going great for some families for others it is not. Smith said the option to remain virtual will be available for families that wish to continue.  

Minza Karim said she supports option one to ensure the health and safety of students and staff.

Green said because of the uncertainty in local health data he supports option one. He added that recommendations change based on political pressure and school districts and public health agencies are under a lot of political pressure right now. 

Kinne said he supports option two because local health experts endorse doing so. Kinne said protocols have been put in place for mitigation and outbreaks. Despite teachers doing fantastic job with virtual instruction that cannot replace in-person learning, he said. COVID-19 could last a long time and the district needs to minimize other harm school closures cause. 

Morgan said her kids would be directly impacted by the board’s decision and they would love to return to school, but because of the current local health data and being consistent with the board’s prior decision she supports option one.

Hyland said he supports option two with the exception that the district continues to monitor other districts in the meantime. He added that if the district does start in-person learning that the board return to in-person meetings as well to lead by example.

Anne Bauer pointed out how polarizing the topic is and said she empathized with voices on both sides. The numbers in the county are not heading in the right direction and there would likely be classes or buildings transitioning back to virtual learning if an outbreak occurs. Bauer said consistency is important, so she supports option two.

Bob Hesselbein said he supports option one because it is too high of an expectation for children to be disciplined enough to meet mitigation protocols. He said epidemiologists are predicting Wisconsin soon to be a hotspot. Hesselbein said he could not stomach the idea of anyone dying because of a decision by the school board. 

Ashley said she supports option two because local medical experts support in-person instruction for PreK-2 and the board should not pick and choose which guidelines to follow.

The vote to maintain virtual instruction passed with a split five to four vote.

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