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Dane County public health department reverses course, says in-person learning can be safe
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Dane County public health department reverses course, says in-person learning can be safe

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After barring schools in August from opening to most students, Dane County’s public health department on Monday said schools can safely reopen with safeguards and a phased approach that would allow more elementary schoolers to return to in-person learning first.

Citing research showing children are less likely to get COVID-19, “Public Health Madison and Dane County believes that schools can operate safely and effectively with strong infection-control measures in place,” the agency said in a statement.

Public Health’s Aug. 21 order barring schools from holding in-person school for grades 3 through 12 was put on hold by the Wisconsin Supreme Court on Sept. 10 after a group of parents and private and religious schools sued to overturn it.

However, that had little effect on most Dane County students because most public school districts in the county, including Madison, had already decided to conduct classes entirely online, except for a small number of disabled students who needed in-person instruction.

Public Health issued five recommendations for schools that choose to reopen to in-person learning:

  • Open schools in phases with elementary schoolers starting first, and offer an online option for students and staff considered at high-risk for getting the virus. The agency is not saying how long each phase should last.
  • Require masks, social distancing and other measures to cut down on virus spread.
  • Track school-based COVID-19 cases and do contact tracing for those who test positive.
  • Develop a plan for moving back to online instruction should the virus spread beyond a predetermined threshold.
  • If widespread testing becomes more available, implement a school-based testing strategy.

The August order said that to consider reopening grades 3 to 5 for in-person instruction, the county must sustain a 14-day average at or below 39 new cases per day for four consecutive weeks. In order to reopen in-person instruction for grades 6 to 12, the county was supposed to sustain a 14-day average at or below 19 new cases per day for four consecutive weeks.

As of Saturday, Dane County’s seven-day average of new daily cases was about 170. Public Health says that in the two-week period ending Dec. 7, there were four clusters and 18 investigations associated with schools, with a total of 30 people testing positive — 11 children and 19 adults. Some of those infections might be double-counted, however.

In a statement, Public Health director Jane Heinrich said that while some schools will see COVID-19 infections should they reopen, “research is showing that having schools open, especially with the youngest learners, does not increase community spread.”

A Madison School District spokesman did not immediately respond Monday to a request for comment, but last week, the district said it will make a decision by Jan. 8 on whether to resume in-person instruction.

Superintendent Carlton Jenkins said the district is considering three options: remaining entirely online, bringing only lower grades back into classrooms or bringing all students back into classrooms.

The district is conducting a family survey to determine how many students would return to in-person learning. That survey was sent out to students in grades 3-12 Wednesday evening.

Elsewhere in the Madison area, the Middleton-Cross Plains School Board voted Dec. 7 to tentatively bring students in prekindergarten through second grade back to school on Jan. 25, but that decision is supposed to be revisited Jan. 11, according to district spokesman Perry Hibner.

The board is also holding a meeting Monday on what approach to take to in-person schooling with all grades, he said.

In Sun Prairie, children in kindergarten through second grade went back to school last week, according to district spokeswoman Patti Lux-Weber, and third- through fifth-graders were expected to return in late January.


Should schools reopen? Our readers sound off

Readers have strong opinions about last Sunday's Wisconsin State Journal editorial, "Fauci sends a message to schools," which encouraged local school districts to develop and share plans for reopening schools for second semester. Here are some of the letters to the editor the State Journal has received in response in recent days. 

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I found last Sunday's State Journal editorial, "Fauci sends a message to schools," disingenuous and dangerous.

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Schools should have opened in September.

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The State Journal editorial board are a bunch of ghouls.

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I take issue with last Sunday's State Journal editorial, "Fauci sends a message to schools," on children returning to schools.

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Schools need to remain virtual. It does not add up that in-person school is OK.

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Instead of making teachers the scapegoats of all the world's ills once again, maybe we should simply be honest: The federal government's egreg…

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I am appalled at the State Journal editorial board’s twisting of Dr. Anthony Fauci’s statements on ABC’s “This Week” and its call to open Madi…

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I am grandmother to a third-grade student who is in the Sun Prairie School District.

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We should wait until fall of 2021 to resume school.

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Teachers want to be back in school, but we know teachers are not protected like they need to be. "Good enough" is not acceptable. Teachers have died.

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I am in total agreement with Dr. Anthony Fauci’s message and the Wisconsin State Journal's editorial in last Sunday's newspaper, "Fauci sends …

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A year of education is being lost at a great cost to the generation losing it.

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I strongly believe parents should have the option to be homeschooled, no matter what the conditions for their kids. 

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I read with great disappointment last Sunday's State Journal editorial, "Fauci sends a message to schools," suggesting schools in Dane County …

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Last Sunday's State Journal editorial, "Fauci sends a message to schools," took Dr. Anthony Fauci's comments out of context.

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I read with consternation last Sunday's State Journal editorial, "Fauci sends a message to schools."

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I find it pretty remarkable that the editorial board was able to gloss over the facts and act as a puppet, echoing statements made by the Legi…

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Last Sunday's State Journal editorial, "Fauci sends a message to schools," took Dr. Anthony Fauci’s comments wildly out of context.

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