Dane County school districts must begin the year virtually for students in grades 3-12 due to the current high number of COVID-19 cases, Public Health Madison & Dane County has ordered.

Public Health Madison & Dane County issued Emergency Order #9 about 5:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 21. It requires all county school disticts to begin the year virtually in September for students in grades 3-12.

Schools serving K-2 students are not required to open for in-person instruction, and those that choose to provide in-person instruction for grades K-2 must still offer virtual learning options.

The order does not change how Deerfield schools will begin the year. The Deerfield School Board has voted to begin all of its students virtually.

However, in the Cambridge School District, elementary students through fifth-grade had been scheduled to return to school in-person in September, with a virtual option. Cambridge students in grades 6-12 at Nikolay Middle School and Cambridge High School have been scheduled to begin the year virtually. And Koshkonong Trails charter school students in grades 7-12 had been scheduled to start in-person, also with a virtual option.

How the Cambridge School District’s location, straddling the Dane-Jefferson County line, will affect its need to abide by the order was not fully clear. Cambridge Elementary School and Nikolay Middle School are located in Dane County, while Cambridge High School is located in Jefferson County. Koshkonong Trails charter school is in Dane County.

In a brief statement released shortly before 7 p.m. Friday, Cambridge School District Superintendent Bernie Nikolay called the announcement “a significant and impactful, eleventh hour, order from the health department. We will begin adjusting our plans this weekend, and get updated information out to our families early next week. We are confident we will offer a quality learning experience for our students no matter the learning platform.”

The School Board went on to set an emergency meeting on the change for Tuesday nght, Aug. 24.

Janel Heinrich, director of Public Health Madison & Dane County, said in a release that “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. Given our current case count, we believe moving students in grades 3-12 to virtual learning is necessary for the safety of our community.”

“While research on school-aged children continues to emerge and evolve, a number of systematic reviews have found that school-aged children contract COVID-19 at lower rates than older populations. This is particularly pronounced among younger school-aged children,” the release said.

Public Health Madison & Dane County has defined school metrics to guide decisions for in-person instruction. As of Aug. 21, Dane County was averaging 42 cases per day. In order to consider reopening grades 3-5 for in-person instruction, Dane County must sustain at or below a 14-day average of 39 cases per day for four consecutive weeks.

In order to consider reopening grades 6-12 for in-person instruction, Dane County must sustain at or below a 14-day average of 19 cases per day for four consecutive weeks. Should Dane County’s average number of cases per day over a two-week period increase above 54, we would consider closing all schools to in-person instruction.

The metrics and criteria were determined using guidance from Forward Dane, Wisconsin Department of Health Services, Harvard Global Health Institute, and the Minnesota Department of Public Health, among others. More information is available on the Public Health Madison & Dane County website.

The metrics will be used to help inform Public Health decisions to reopen schools and will be assessed in combination with Forward Dane metrics, data trajectory (increasing, stable, or decreasing), current best practices, federal and state guidance, and unforeseen influencing factors.

“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.”

Public Health Madison & Dane County will continue to work closely with schools, as we have been during the entire pandemic. Public health staff meet with school leadership and school stakeholders twice a week to answer questions, provide data, and share resources.

As this is a novel disease and we are learning more each day, 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.

“We currently have robust testing and a stable healthcare system, and currently the average of new cases among Dane County children 17 and under has not increased since early August. However, we still haven’t met our target for community case counts to safely reopen all schools for in-person instruction,” said Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway. “We all have a role to play in suppressing the virus to a level that will allow us to reopen all schools.”

When we all limit trips out, avoid gathering, wear our masks, stay six feet from others, and follow other public health recommendations, the virus can’t spread as easily. When the virus can’t spread, our case count goes down, and schools will be able to reopen and stay open.

Emergency Order #9 also updates some childcare requirements, incorporates some aspects of the statewide mask mandate, and makes some additional clarifications.

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