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La Crosse schools, hospital leaders urge community to slow COVID-19 spread amid staffing shortages

Middle school forced to close this week because of high number of staff absences

Cars drive by businesses in downtown La Crosse.
People drive vehicles through downtown La Crosse on Monday, April 26, 2021. Angela Major/WPR

The head of the La Crosse School District is urging the community to take measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 after closing a middle school this week due to staffing shortages.

Logan Middle School was closed Thursday and Friday because of the large number of staff absences and a lack of substitute teachers, said superintendent Aaron Engel. An announcement about the closure on the school’s Facebook page said students were expected to access instructional materials online but were not required to attend virtual classes.

During a press conference Friday held by the La Crosse County Health Department, Engel said staff and student absences across the district have risen “exponentially” in the last week.

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“We were unable to safely supervise all the students in our building.” Engel said. “We hope to avoid that in the future, and we’re working on plans to be as flexible as we can be. But it is more and more challenging to keep our community and our schools running with these staffing shortages,” Engel said.

The School District of La Crosse is not the first district in the state to have to close schools due to staff shortages. Beloit schools closed Monday because there weren’t enough bus drivers to get students to school. School districts are also navigating new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on how long staff and students have to quarantine after being exposed.

Engel said district leaders are aware of the negative community impact that would come from further school closures, especially elementary schools. He said administrators are treating each school on a “case by case basis” and are not considering a district-wide shut down. He said the district did not have plans to discontinue sports or extracurriculars based on COVID-19 case rates, but that administrators are continuing to evaluate the level of risk faced by students participating in those activities.

Hogan Administrative Center
The Hogan Administrative Center is the School District of La Crosse’s headquarters. Hope Kirwan/WPR

The district already requires all staff, students and visitors to wear masks, which Engel said has proven effective.

“We have seen very little spread or transmission in our schools. It’s been a successful strategy to keep schools open, to keep kids at school, to keep kids healthy,” he said. “We feel comfortable with kids when they’re at school with the procedures that we have in place. But in the broader community, there’s opportunities for transmission where there’s fewer mitigation strategies in place.”

Engel urged the community to practice social distancing, wear masks in public and to get vaccinated in order to slow the spread of virus.

According to county health officials, the daily number of new COVID-19 cases is now two to four times higher than what was seen in the community in the fall.

Data from the state Department of Health Services show on Wednesday La Crosse County had the highest seven-day average of confirmed and probable cases since the start of the pandemic, with 215 cases.

Local health care leaders also joined Friday’s briefing to emphasize how the high transmission rates were causing staffing shortages and high demand at local hospitals.

Dr. Scott Rathgaber, CEO of Gundersen Health System, said his health care system has seen a three- to four-fold increase in the number of staff members being out sick.

“We’re very good at protecting our staff and our patients within our walls with our masking, social distancing, hygiene and those sorts of things, but out in the community it’s spreading and our staff are being affected,” Rathgaber said. “It’s critically important that we continue to maintain capacity across our hospitals for the patients who need care, not only for COVID but for cancer, for heart attacks, strokes, injuries.”

He said a smaller percentage of patients who contract the omicron variant of the virus appear to be hospitalized because of the virus. But Rathgaber said the large increase in the number of people infected means that smaller percentage has a big impact.

A Mayo Clinic Health System official reported similar staffing problems at their regional hospitals and said testing volumes are the highest they have ever seen.

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