Public Health Provides New Guidance as Local Schools Consider Re-Opening
Decisions to reopen are up to the individual districts
Public Health Madison & Dane County has released updated recommendations for schools to consider as they evaluate whether to bring kids back to the classroom. Due to a Wisconsin Supreme Court injunction, Public Health cannot make decisions about opening schools. This updated guidance is intended to help districts inform their decision-making about when they are ready to safely open their schools.
The new recommendations take into consideration the growing body of national and international research on disease transmission within school settings since schools began to open in August.
Utilizing this new research, Public Health Madison & Dane County believes that schools can operate safely and effectively with strong infection-control measures in place and recommends that if schools decide to open, they use a phased approach, beginning with elementary schools first.
“In the summer, our advice relied on community incidence, models, and expected safety risks. Now, we have emerging data, and while not complete, the evidence is strong that schools, particularly elementary schools, can function in a way that minimizes risk, when they have the right health precautions in place, including mask-wearing and social distancing,” said Janel Heinrich, Director of Public Health Madison & Dane County.
A phased reopening that starts with elementary students ensures that schools and teachers have the tools, capacity, and protocols in place to reduce the risk of transmission for students, staff and teachers before they reopen fully across grades.
Previously, Public Health metrics focused on the number of COVID-19 cases per day in Dane County and recommended that grades 3-12 remain virtual given the level of disease in the community. Due to a pending lawsuit, Public Health Madison & Dane County can only issue recommendations and cannot require schools to be closed.
All K-12 schools open in Dane County must continue to follow infection-control provisions outlined in the current public health order. Some of the requirements include:
- A hygiene policy and cleaning policy that reduce chance for disease spread by ensuring:
- People experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 do not come to or remain in school
- Frequent handwashing and proper cough and sneeze etiquette
- Frequently touched surfaces are disinfected multiple times a day
- Common areas are cleaned between use
- There are protocols for cleaning and disinfecting in the event of a positive COVID-19 case on site
- A protective measure policy that reduces everyone’s close contact with others by ensuring:
- Everyone ages five and older wear face coverings when indoors and on buses
- Everyone is at least six feet from others to the greatest extent possible when indoors and on buses
- The same group of students stay with the same employees as much as possible and mixing between groups is minimized
- Implement Public Health’s action plan for COVID-19 case(s) at the school.
“Schools reflect our community picture, so given the level of disease in our community, we expect some schools to be impacted by students and staff testing positive for COVID-19, but research is showing that having schools open, especially with the youngest learners, does not increase community spread,” said Janel Heinrich, Director of Public Health Madison & Dane County.
“As time passes, we learn more and more about this disease. These recommendations mark a shift in understanding and show that Public Health uses the latest data and science when putting forth recommendations for the health and safety of the community,” said Jerry Halverson, MD, Chair of the Board of Health.
Schools are not required to open for in-person instruction, and schools that choose to provide in-person instruction should consider offering a virtual option. Schools should also take into consideration that some staff and students might be at higher risk of serious illness and COVID complications, particularly those with underlying medical conditions.