All Dane County schools will be required to start classes online this fall for grades 3-12 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, public health officials ordered Friday.
Emergency Order #9, issued by Public Health Madison and Dane County shortly after 5 p.m., requires all county schools to suspend in-person instruction for grades 3-12 due to the age group’s inability to meet metrics required to open schools in the fall. Students in kindergarten through second grade will be allowed to return to classrooms with precautions in place if schools choose to do so.
The majority of public schools across Dane County have already opted to begin the year with online learning to help mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, but a number of private schools across the state had planned to begin in-person instruction as early as next week.
The Madison School District previously announced plans for an all-online Sept. 8 start to the year and will continue online classes through at least October.
As of Aug. 21, Dane County averaged 42 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 per day. In order to consider reopening grades 3-5 for in-person instruction, the county must sustain a 14-day average at or below 39 cases per day for four consecutive weeks, Public Health Madison and Dane County said. In order to reopen in-person instruction for grades 6-12, the county must sustain a 14-day average at or below 19 cases per day for four consecutive weeks.
“Moving students in grades 3-12 to virtual learning is not a step we take lightly, as schools provide critical services, and in-person instruction offers unparalleled opportunities and structure for students and parents,” said Janel Heinrich, director of Public Health Madison and Dane County. “Given our current case count, we believe moving students in grades 3-12 to virtual learning is necessary for the safety of our community.”
Studies show younger school-age children tend to contract the coronavirus at a much lower rate than older members of the population. But outbreaks of COVID-19 in communities across the country followed school reopenings in August and contributed to the decision made by Dane County officials.
“As we’ve seen throughout the country, schools that are opening too quickly — particularly with older students — are having outbreaks,” said Dane County Executive Joe Parisi. “By allowing K-2 students to return to the classroom with strict precautions and keeping grades 3-12 virtual, we can minimize outbreaks. Many school districts have already made the decision to go virtual for all grades, and we support their choice.”
Before Friday’s order was issued, school districts across Dane County were left to decide whether they would reopen for in-person instruction in the fall. Some had opted for a phased approach to reopening their districts for in-person learning.
The Verona School Board voted to keep most of its 5,741 students learning online. As students in grades 3-12 begin the school year online, the approximately $150 million, 590,000-square-foot new Verona High School will be empty come September.
The Monona Grove School Board also voted to start the start the school year online.
A number of private schools in Dane County, however, have put hundreds of thousands of dollars into renovations and restructuring to allow for in-person learning amid the pandemic, said Jim Bender, president of School Choice Wisconsin.
“The fact that a number of private schools were opening early next week, and to come down with this order just a few days before, puts an unbelievable burden on the families who planned to have their students in-person at school,” Bender said.
“Unless you’re testing the exact same number of people every day, the number of (COVID-19) cases is completely arbitrary” to reopening schools safely, he said.
Friday’s order also updates some childcare requirements, incorporates some aspects of the statewide mask mandate, and makes some additional clarifications.
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