For the first month of the school year, the Millar children of rural Blue Mounds, Wisconsin, stayed home.

“It wasn’t very much fun,” the oldest, 10-year-old Adara Millar, said of her virtual learning. “You’re looking at a computer screen for six and a half hours.”

To break up the screen time, their father Matt Millar took Adara and her two younger brothers Sterling and Matthias outside for “man stuff.”

He notes that description is tongue-in-cheek, but for the children it meant competitions around their yard: A foot race, a rope climb, target shooting, watermelon-seed spitting, chicken catching.

Millar and the children’s mother had the option to send them to class at the Barneveld School District, but Millar’s home has good internet, which can be unusual for rural Wisconsin. And Millar’s mother-in-law was available to supervise her grandchildren’s education.

That made the decision to keep them safe at home — at least at first — easier. But on Thursday, the district announced that all students would attend virtually after a staff member or student tested positive for COVID-19, the second time the district has closed its school building because of a virus scare.

 Millar said the case came from one of his children’s classrooms — so the family will be on a “strict, personal quarantine” for the time being.

Hundreds of schools affected

Across Wisconsin — currently one of the nation’s worst COVID-19 hotspots — health officials have investigated nearly 500 COVID-19 outbreaks in schools. More than 15,000 children ages 17 and younger have been infected to date, state Department of Health Services data show. Numerous schools across Wisconsin have suspended in-person classes this fall, at least temporarily, because of cases among students and staff.

But in Wisconsin, no child has died of COVID-19, and early research elsewhere indicates that the disease does not spread easily within school buildings.

Millar, a quantitative analyst, has gamed out various scenarios for officials on whether children should be in school. He believes a mixture of in-person and online instruction is safest and best.

“It’s a tricky decision,” Millar acknowledged.

Over in the village of Dane, 30 miles to the northeast, the Hellenbrands’ decision was made for them. The Lodi School District, where the four Hellenbrand children attend, decided to exclusively deliver instruction online at least through the first quarter, which concludes Nov. 6.

That’s really tough on the family, which has snail-like internet at their farm house. And just last week, Amy Jo Hellenbrand had to suspend her in-home day care business after she and her husband Andy both tested positive for COVID-19. She said the symptoms so far resemble a bad cold or flu, with “terrible headaches, body aches, fever, chills (and) nausea.” 

The school district gave the family a hotspot, a hockey puck-shaped device that delivers Wi-Fi through a cell phone network. That has helped them balance education with their sluggish internet service, Hellenbrand said. But data caps slow the Hellenbrand’s internet at the end of a billing cycle to a crawl, like wading through waist-high snow. 

She describes the monthly slowdowns as “horrible.”

Wisconsin is behind the national average when it comes to high-speed internet coverage in rural parts of the state. About 43% of rural areas lack the service, compared to about 31% nationwide.

That’s one reason Wisconsin’s rural school districts overwhelmingly decided to return to face-to-face instruction last month, said Kim Kaukl, executive director of the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance.

While big urban school districts like Milwaukee and Madison opted to start completely online, about 75% of the 100 rural districts that answered an optional survey from the state Department of Public Instruction planned to offer face-to-face instruction at least four days per week, a Wisconsin Watch analysis of DPI data shows. Most, if not all, give families the option of virtual schooling, however.

This is the second in a series of Wisconsin Watch stories examining how parents, students and educators in rural Wisconsin are managing this once-in-a-century crisis. For a look at how other states are faring, see Lesson plans: Rural schools grapple with COVID.

Back to school — with masks

When the Millars put their children back in school on Oct. 1, it marked the first time they had been in a classroom since March. But most rural schoolchildren in Wisconsin are in school. Or at least they started that way. 

Brodhead High School suspended in-person classes for 10 days in early September after a group of students tested positive for COVID-19 from attending a party. As of Thursday, the school was operating at 50% capacity to stem the spread of the disease, which has hit at least 28 students and staff in the district and required 161 others to quarantine because of close potential exposure to COVID-19.

To the frustration of some, the state is not releasing the names of the schools with outbreaks.

To fill the information gap, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin maintain a database of schools with positive tests based on news and public health reports. It lists nearly 800 positive tests in individual schools since the academic year began.

Nationally, schools returning to session do not seem to have triggered many mass outbreaks, as some had feared. The vast majority of young children do not get very sick from the virus, and evidence is growing that they are less likely to contract COVID-19 than adults, according to a group of researchers and public health officials who run the website Covid-Explained. Less clear is how likely children are to spread it.

Yet as children went back to school, Wisconsin did see a surge in infections among those ages 17 and under, DHS figures show. In response to such troubling numbers, Gov. Tony Evers last month extended the statewide mask mandate another 60 days to Nov. 21.

Amy Lund is a social studies teacher at the tiny La Farge High School in western Wisconsin. With a population of 65 students, the school decided initially to offer primarily in-person instruction. Ten students elected to attend classes virtually.

But because of rising case numbers in Vernon County, the school district moved all of its 6th-12th grade education online for the first two weeks of October. On Monday, the district enacted a new model for the middle and high schools: in-person classes on Tuesdays and Fridays only, with “live, teacher-led” online classes the other three days.

Lund wears a purple and white gaiter with the school’s wildcat mascot printed on the front for her in-person classes. She and the students take occasional outdoor “mask breaks” for a fresh-air breather. 

Beaming in — ‘Brady Bunch’ style 

Schools have had to adjust to the shifting landscape as the pandemic has surged and retreated and now surged again. Districts face dueling political and popular sentiment that pressure them to reopen schools — or keep them closed.

Steve Elliot, the president of the Albany School Board and a father of three students in the district, feared this school year would be marked by “whipsawing” — and he has been proven correct. The second week of school, the Albany district saw its first positive test and decided to go virtual for a week. Then staffing shortages forced suspension of classes for seven days. 

He says teachers have had to figure out how to switch from in-person to online classes on the fly.

“I think we’re getting better every week,” Elliot said.

Unlike many rural districts, Albany, in south-central Wisconsin, brought back only its younger students, starting with online only schooling for students in grades 7 and up. On Oct. 5, freshmen returned to full in-person instruction, but students in grades 10-12 now go to school in shifts just two days a week.

According to the Department of Public Instruction survey, most, if not all, Wisconsin districts are offering virtual instruction for students and families who choose it. That means many teachers need to tend to both students sitting in their classes and those learning from home.

“Speaking as a parent and as a school board member, it creates a very high burden on our staff,” Elliot said.

In La Farge, Lund mixes the virtual students with her live classes. At the beginning of the period, she beams the virtual students up on the digital chalkboard, “Brady Bunch” style, and lets them say “hey” to their classmates before moving to that day’s lesson. She then shares her computer screen both to the board and with the students working from home on their laptops or tablets, so everyone can see her slides and hear her lecture.

Return to class — then back home

Everyone —  administrators, teachers, parents and students — knows that COVID-19 tests will return positive this school year, and they remain on standby to return to virtual instruction at any moment. Already, many are grappling with ensuring students who are exposed are quarantined and those who are sick are isolated, which also can disrupt learning.

In far northern Wisconsin, the Hurley School District had no cases for the first five weeks, but got its first in mid-October, leading to the quarantining of three students, but no shutdown — yet.

“There’s nothing that beats being in person for school,” said Kevin Genisot, superintendent of the Hurley School District.” It’s much more than academics. It’s social behavior. It’s social norms. It’s learning to handle adversity. It’s the real life experiences that teach you to deal with that.”

Back in Blue Mounds, Millar was relieved his children were in school again. He says his younger two — ages 5 and 7 — weren’t getting the benefits of virtual instruction.

But as of Friday, the Millar children and other Barneveld students are learning from home in what the district calls a “temporary” move.

Millar said the short-term shutdown is smart, because it should allow the school to “neuter” any spread.  He said he can handle another few days of his children at home — as long as they go back to school soon.

“As parents, we’re used to the kids being home,” Millar said. “There’s in-service days, there’s parent-teacher conference days, there’s snow days, there’s kids-getting-sick days. It’s not like we’re incapable of dealing with kids being home from school. 

“It just can’t be every single frickin’ day.”

This piece is part of a collaborative reporting project called Lesson Plans: Rural schools grapple with COVID with the Institute for Nonprofit News and several member newsrooms. The collaboration was made possible by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation. The nonprofit Wisconsin Watch (wisconsinwatch.org) collaborates with WPR, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

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