Public Health Madison & Dane County issued an order Friday evening requiring all schools in the county to begin classes online only for grades 3 to 12.
While many schools across Wisconsin have announced plans to start the school year virtually given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, this order sets a countywide policy. The order, signed by Janel Heinrich, the city-county department's director, goes into effect on Monday and requires both public and private schools to comply. It also mandates the schools develop and implement a "hygiene policy and procedure."
Officials said schools can be open for "in-person student instruction" for kindergarten through second grade only, but mandates schools also must provide a "virtual option" for those students.
Heinrich said that they took this action given the current number of COVID-19 cases in the county.
"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," Heinrich said in a news release. "Given our current case count, we believe moving students in grades 3-12 to virtual learning is necessary for the safety of our community."
Dane County Executive Joe Parisi said he supports the department's order.
"As we've seen throughout the country, schools that are opening too quickly — particularly with older students — are having outbreaks," Parisi said in the news release. "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."
Health officials have outlined a plan in which they would allow schools to reopen. They said in the news release that in order to consider reopening grades 3 through 5 to in-person instruction, the county must be at or below a 14-day average of 39 cases per day for four consecutive weeks. For grades 6 to 12, the county must sustain at or below a 14-day average of 19 cases per day for four consecutive weeks.
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They noted that children typically don't contract the coronavirus at the same rates as adults.
"While research on school-aged children continues to emerge and evolve, a number of systematic reviews have found that school-aged children contract COVID at lower rates than older populations. This is particularly pronounced among younger school-aged children," the order said.
Health officials said that as of Thursday, 9 percent of all COVID-19 cases in Dane County were among children between the ages of 0 to 17, and that this age bracket is 22 percent of the county's overall population.
They also said that "outbreaks and clusters among cases aged 5-17 have been rare" — with only 8 percent associated with an outbreak or cluster.
"A recent analysis also showed a higher proportion of adults with COVID in Dane County had symptoms compared to school-aged children and that the most common risk factor among school-aged children was household contact with a confirmed case. No deaths among children who have tested positive for COVID-19 have occurred in Dane County," the order said.
Department officials said that they would continue to work with school leaders and stakeholders to monitor the data about the pandemic in taking next steps, and that plans will be adjusted as more is learned about the virus.
"The thresholds Public Health has established will be frequently reexamined and potentially updated as additional information about COVID-19 transmission, mitigation, impact, testing, and treatments become available," officials wrote in the news release.
As such, this order also included updates about child care requirements and adding elements of the statewide mask mandate, among other changes.