PHMDC: Schools can reopen safely, if they take strong infection-control measures

Published: Dec. 14, 2020 at 4:17 PM CST|Updated: Dec. 14, 2020 at 4:56 PM CST
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - New guidance from Public Health Madison and Dane Co. offers area school districts direction for safely reopening.

While health officials urged schools remain closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the latest recommendations, released Monday, offer guidelines for helping district officials decide if they should let students return to the classroom and how they should do it. The health dept. stated the new policies were based on a growing body of national and international research.

“As time passes, we learn more and more about this disease. These recommendations mark a shift in understanding and show that Public Health uses the latest data and science when putting forth recommendations for the health and safety of the community,” Chair of the Board of Health Jerry Halverson, MD, said.

A state Supreme Court injunction prevents PHMDC from mandating schools remain closed, but the official recommendations prior to this latest reversal indicated the region needed significant reductions in community spread before it would be safe to return to in-class instruction.

Prior to the injunction, the county required virtual learning for third through 12th grade students, while younger students could attend class. However, a surge of new cases would have pushed the county past many of the standards that would have required those children to go online too.

Under the new guidance, PHMDC recommends districts return to the classroom in phases, starting with those younger students. Health officials contend by starting with elementary students, the districts could make sure they have the tools and procedures in place to protect their students, teachers, and community before throwing their doors open completely.

“Schools reflect our community picture, so given the level of disease in our community, we expect some schools to be impacted by students and staff testing positive for COVID-19, but research is showing that having schools open, especially with the youngest learners, does not increase community spread,” PHMDC Director Janel Heinrich said.

Public Health stressed its new guidance means schools could open, if district officials approve; it is not a directive that they should open. Additionally, even if they do return to in-class learning, health officials urge the district to offer a virtual option and remember that some of their students and staff may be at greater risk of serious coronavirus complications than most.

Finally, while PHMDC is blocked from closing the schools altogether, its latest emergency order does layout infection-control requirements in its latest order.

Some of the requirements include:

  • A hygiene policy and cleaning policy that reduce chance for disease spread by ensuring:
    • People experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 do not come to or remain in school
    • Frequent handwashing and proper cough and sneeze etiquette
    • Frequently touched surfaces are disinfected multiple times a day
    • Common areas are cleaned between use
    • There are protocols for cleaning and disinfecting in the event of a positive COVID-19 case on site
  • A protective measure policy that reduces everyone’s close contact with others by ensuring:
    • Everyone ages five and older wear face coverings when indoors and on buses
    • Everyone is at least six feet from others to the greatest extent possible when indoors and on buses
    • The same group of students stay with the same employees as much as possible and mixing between groups is minimized
  • Implement Public Health’s action plan PDF for COVID-19 case(s) at the school.

“In the summer, our advice relied on community incidence, models, and expected safety risks. Now, we have emerging data, and while not complete, the evidence is strong that schools, particularly elementary schools, can function in a way that minimizes risk, when they have the right health precautions in place, including mask-wearing and social distancing,” Heinrich added.

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