Madison Metropolitan School District families wondering whether their students will have to wear masks or stay physically distanced in the classroom won’t likely have an answer this month.
“We are hoping to be able to announce those protocols in early August,” district spokesperson Tim LeMonds wrote in an email to the Cap Times Friday.
The district is planning a full return to in-person instruction five days a week this fall, with limited virtual options for some grades 6-12 students, after a year-and-a-half of virtual or hybrid learning.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, meanwhile, issued draft guidance Friday on COVID-19 to districts that indicated vaccinated teachers and students do not need to wear masks. While all teachers have been eligible for the vaccine since spring, children under the age of 12 are not currently eligible.
The CDC guidance also recommends physical distancing of at least 3 feet between students inside classrooms, though it also states that distancing should not be a barrier to reopening. Instead, if physical distancing cannot be maintained, the guidance says, “it is especially important to layer multiple other prevention strategies, such as indoor masking.”
It also does not recommend cohorting — or separating students into groups for the day — vaccinated students together and unvaccinated students together, stating that the school has a responsibility to ensure any cohorting “is done in an equitable manner that does not perpetuate academic, racial, or other tracking.”
Local school officials have relied on guidance from organizations like the CDC and Public Health Madison & Dane County throughout the pandemic to help formulate rules and prevention strategies for school settings. The district was entirely virtual from March 2020 until March 2021, when it began a phased-in return to in-person instruction.
Early in the pandemic, many feared schools would be superspreader environments, but that has not borne out when mitigation strategies are in place. Younger people also are less likely to experience severe complications from contracting COVID-19 initially.
“Though COVID-19 outbreaks have occurred in school settings, multiple studies have shown that transmission rates within school settings, when multiple prevention strategies are in place, are typically lower than — or similar to — community transmission levels,” the CDC guidance states.
In Dane County, community transmission levels are low and vaccination rate is relatively high.
State Department of Health Services data shows that 70.1%% of MMSD residents have completed their vaccine series. That includes 54.4% of those between the ages of 12 and 15 and 66.8% of those in the ages 16-17 bracket.
The CDC recommends other processes like screening testing, ventilation, practicing handwashing etiquette and staying home when sick as “important layers of prevention to keep schools safe.”
Much of the guidance leaves decision-making to local officials, with the CDC recommending schools work with public health officials to monitor community transmission and vaccination levels to inform policy and practice.
If schools begin to remove prevention strategies like masking and physical distancing, the CDC says, they should “remove them one at a time and monitor closely for any increases in COVID-19 cases.”
Under the CDC’s standards for community transmission, Dane County school districts would not need to offer screening tests for students, but should offer screening testing for unvaccinated teachers and staff at least once a week.
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