Dane County public health officials have softened their stance on in-person instruction for schools as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.
Public Health Madison & Dane County issued updated recommendations for schools Monday afternoon, suggesting "phased reopening" that starts with elementary school if school districts decide to return to in-person instruction.
"Public Health Madison & Dane County believes that schools can operate safely and effectively with strong infection-control measures in place," the announcement states.
Districts are not required to reopen for in-person instruction.
Earlier this year, the agency required districts to hold virtual school for grades 3-12 while allowing grades K-2 to be in-person, outlining a stricter phased approach at the time based on the rate of community spread.
While that order was put on hold by the state Supreme Court following three legal challenges, in September the agency urged districts to continue providing virtual instruction for grades 3-12 even though it was not required.
Monday's announcement offers a move toward reopening, though the agency's announcement notes that individual schools and districts will have to evaluate their situations to determine if it's safe to open.
"The updated guidance is intended to help districts inform their decision-making about when they are ready to safely open their schools," the recommendations state.
The recommendations cite various data and research on transmission of COVID-19 within schools from other countries and areas of the United States. While schools and younger children have not been found to be the "super spreaders" feared early on in the pandemic, there is evidence of staff-to-staff transmission.
"Dane County contact tracing interviews have found that teacher interaction with other teachers in the school setting has led to exposures to COVID, resulting in staff quarantine and shortages," the recommendations state.
Recommendations for mitigation include having a contact-tracing plan in place, a plan to shift to virtual learning if necessary and implementing a school-based testing program if widespread testing becomes more available.
Requirements like mask-wearing for those over the age of 5 and implementing hygiene and cleaning policies remain in place, as well.
Madison Metropolitan School District officials are expected to announce by Jan. 8 if the district will return any students for in-person learning in the third quarter, which begins Jan. 25. Most county districts have remained primarily online, though some schools have brought back elementary-aged children.
Many private schools returned for in-person instruction following the state Supreme Court's order in September.
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