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Open Since September: Elmbrook Schools Capitalized On Health Care Partnership To Test, Vaccinate Staff

Access To Rapid COVID-19 Tests, Reserve Funds Helped Elmbrook Eased Into Reopening When Other Districts Struggled

A student at a desk works with a crafting knife.
A Brookfield East High School participates in a painting and drawing class with other in-person students Monday, March 15, 2021, in Brookfield, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

As Wisconsin schools have adapted to teaching, counseling, feeding and supporting their students through the COVID-19 pandemic, many have leaned more heavily on the resources they had going in.

Some used school buses they owned or contracted for to drop off meals, Chromebooks, hotspots and other supplies to families. Those with high rates of internet access across their community used it to get school back up and running virtually. Some private schools, many of which have smaller class sizes than their public counterparts, used their ability to distance and more direct lines of communication with families to plan an easier reopening. Some were able to leverage the expertise of pediatricians and medical researchers within their districts to help them minimize the risk of teaching in-person and monitor the spread of COVID-19.

For the Elmbrook school district, just west of Milwaukee, having access to an onsite health clinic that helped them screen, test and vaccinate their staff eased reopening in the fall and has made it easier to keep students and staff safely in school buildings.

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Elmbrook partnered with the company Everside, formerly Healthstat, in 2017 to serve staff at a clinic that’s within 10 minutes of each school in the district. Employees on Elmbrook’s health insurance plan go to the clinic for primary care, which Elmbrook chief strategy officer Chris Thompson said keeps health costs down for the district and leads to healthier employees. When COVID-19 sent schools scrambling, Elmbrook was able to use that existing partnership to get teachers and students back in classrooms.

“They’re an expert resource, and they’re across the country,” he said. “We can learn from what other districts are doing, and leverage that insight in our own district — when we started talking to them about employee screening, and how to get our employees back in person, they had the expertise to help guide that conversation.”

A student wears a face mask as she plays the clarinet.
Students at Brookfield East High School wear masks during class Monday, March 15, 2021, in Brookfield, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

The district of about 7,400 students has been offering in-person classes since September. Each quarter, families can elect to send their student to in-person classes or have them learn virtually. About 75 percent are currently learning in person.

At the beginning of the year, Everside was screening all employees — expanded from just serving staff members on Elmbrook’s insurance — for COVID-19, and directing them to testing resources if they had a suspected case or exposure. In December, the district and the health care provider were able to get rapid tests, which allowed them to test staff for COVID-19 on site and get them their results the same day.

The rapid test — in addition to being a rapid PCR test, not just the antigen test — was a game-changer for Elmbrook,” said Kalee Cambray, a nurse practitioner at the Elmbrook Everside clinic. “It allowed us to quickly identify people that were infected and immediately get them into isolation, and anyone exposed into the quarantine process.”

The district was also able to set aside about $5 million last May from a combination of its fund balance and savings from some services and expenses that weren’t applicable during the pandemic. Throughout the summer and into the fall, its finance and operations committee met weekly so it could quickly authorize spending on in-demand items like bulk hand sanitizer, or the rapid PCR tests. To date, Thompson said the district has spent about $2.5 million of that money on everything from technology for virtual learning to classroom air filters.

A lot of factors have played into how well districts have been able to adapt to wave after wave of uncertainty and disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic. Having more money reserved after covering expenses in previous years has helped, but the level of internet access during spring shutdowns — which tend to be lower in rural and some urban districts — makes a difference as well, as does the overall health of the community and prevalence of pre-existing conditions that may put students and families more at risk.

“There’s so many things, and some of them are financial, some of them have to do with the student body and characteristics of the district, just geography and so forth,” said Jason Stein, a researcher at the Wisconsin Policy Forum who wrote a report in May about districts’ finances going into the pandemic. “There’s a lot of factors at play, and some of it can work different ways.”

From a solely financial perspective, though, having a larger fund balance that’s not assigned to specific future expenses helps, he said, because they’re “a hedge against uncertainty — and COVID has been the ultimate uncertainty.”

Boxes of papers in folders are placed on tables in a school lobby.
Paperwork for students who take classes virtually are available for pick-up in the lobby of Brookfield East High School on Monday, March 15, 2021, in Brookfield, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Elmbrook, and other nearby districts including West Allis and Waukesha, have a close partnership with Everside that’s helped them handle the medical concerns of the pandemic.

Thompson, the district’s chief strategy officer, said he understands how reopening could be more complicated for larger districts, or those with fewer resources. However, he said, parts of what Elmbrook was able to do are replicable elsewhere, even for districts that don’t have such a direct line to a health provider, or the same financial flexibility.

“I think that model, if you back up to a higher level of, how can you leverage partnerships and relationships to move your district forward, I think that’s available to any school district,” he said. “Everybody is trying to leverage the resources they have available to them to the best of their ability.”[[{“fid”:”1467441″,”view_mode”:”embed_landscape”,”fields”:{“format”:”embed_landscape”,”alignment”:”right”,”field_image_caption[und][0][value]”:”%3Cp%3EStudents%20participate%20in%20a%20physical%20education%20class%20at%20Brookfield%20East%20High%20School%20on%20Monday%2C%20March%2015%2C%202021%2C%20in%20Brookfield%2C%20Wis.%20%3Cem%3EAngela%20Major%2FWPR%3C%2Fem%3E%3C%2Fp%3E%0A”,”field_image_caption[und][0][format]”:”full_html”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:”High school students wearing face masks throw a medicine ball in a PE class. “,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:”Brookfield East High School”},”type”:”media”,”field_deltas”:{“1”:{“format”:”embed_landscape”,”alignment”:”right”,”field_image_caption[und][0][value]”:”%3Cp%3EStudents%20participate%20in%20a%20physical%20education%20class%20at%20Brookfield%20East%20High%20School%20on%20Monday%2C%20March%2015%2C%202021%2C%20in%20Brookfield%2C%20Wis.%20%3Cem%3EAngela%20Major%2FWPR%3C%2Fem%3E%3C%2Fp%3E%0A”,”field_image_caption[und][0][format]”:”full_html”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:”High school students wearing face masks throw a medicine ball in a PE class. “,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:”Brookfield East High School”}},”link_text”:false,”attributes”:{“alt”:”High school students wearing face masks throw a medicine ball in a PE class. “,”title”:”Brookfield East High School”,”class”:”media-element file-embed-landscape media-wysiwyg-align-right”,”data-delta”:”1″}}]]

Elmbrook adapted in other ways too, he noted. When the district decided to purchase new air filters for all its classrooms, it bought them all within six weeks, a turnaround he said would have been “unheard of” before the pandemic.

The district also updates a detailed COVID-19 dashboard that includes quarantining numbers, attendance and other data points, every day. It’s been polling families and staff every month to see what it’s doing well, and where the district need to improve.

“Our approach was, this isn’t going to be perfect from the beginning, and may never be perfect, but we’re going to continue to give families and students choice in how they learn, and our staff choice in how they work,” said Thompson.