As of last Friday, no area school district had yet made the decision to require masks in school buildings in the fall, with most school boards taking a “wait and see” approach to COVID-19 mitigation protocols.
Meanwhile, the Jefferson County Health Department came out with an unequivocal statement Wednesday, Aug. 11 recommending masks for all K-12 schools to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“We are recommending that masks be required of all students at this time,” said Samroz Jakvani, Jefferson County epidemiologist.
He said if the risk is determined to have dropped to a safer level, as determined by numerous factors laid out in the health department’s school COVID-19 mitigation guidelines, then the department will notify districts masks can be made optional.
“At this time, we feel based on the rate and speed of increased case activity, that (masks are) needed,” Jakvani said. “It would be reckless for the local health department to recommend that masks be made optional at this time given our caseload and other factors.
“Masks are one tool that we have in our arsenal of resources,” the epidemiologist said, “but they truly are our best line of defense in preventing widespread transmission in congregate settings.”
He noted this effectiveness was evidenced last year as the local area saw extremely low transmission levels in the schools while masking and other mitigation strategies were in place — even during times of high case activity in the community at large.
“By implementing this guidance, schools can continue providing students with safe and in-person instruction while protecting our community,” said Gail Scott, director of the Jefferson County Health Department.
She noted COVID-19 case rates in the county have increased substantially over several weeks due to the emergence to the Delta variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
“This variant is known to be highly infectious compared to other variants of the virus,” Scott said.
As of yet, the Delta variant has not been determined to cause more severe disease, she noted, but it is much more transmissible than the Alpha version that dominated in the U.S. earlier in 2021.
However, due to a number of mutations in the Delta variant which make it easier for the disease to evade the immune system and cause infected people to throw off many times the “viral load” as with previous versions of the virus, that has resulted in a higher number of overall new cases.
“It is crucial that we prevent the spread of COVID-19 to protect those of all ages who remain vulnerable to severe illness from COVID-19 and implement the appropriate strategies when they are needed,” Scott said.
With the experience of all-virtual learning in the spring of 2020 and portions of the fall and winter in 2020 and 2021 in the rear mirror, educational experts have determined that in-person instruction is critical for the educational and social development of students of all ages.
Thus, local officials are determined to make that possible by employing appropriate COVID-19 mitigation measures so that schools can remain open while prioritizing the health and safety of students, teachers, school staff, their families and the community.
“Preventing the spread of COVID-19, keeping children healthy, and meeting their educational and social needs are not mutually exclusive goals,” Scott said.
She cited up-to-date information from the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.S Department of Education (DOE), the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) and Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) as backing up this approach.
Scott noted that before the COVID-19 vaccine became available to the public, the Jefferson County Health Department developed a set of protocols appropriate to the situation at the time.
When vaccines became widely available, at least for those age 12 and up, the health department backed an easing of restrictions.
Now the Delta variant has led to a new spike in cases, causing the department to adjust its recommendations again.
“It is vital to consider that vaccination is currently not available for individuals younger than age 12, though approval for some of these individuals is anticipated later this year,” Scott noted.
“It is also important to consider that SARS-CoV-2 is a novel virus that we continue to learn about,” the health department director said.
“At this time, the long-term impact of COVID-19 and to what extent youth may be affected is not well understood,” Scott said, “even though most infections do not appear to sustain any substantial impact in the short-term to the infected individual based on prior case data.
“It is also not well understood how the Delta variant will act different in school settings,” she added.
Scott said the Jefferson County Health Department is committed to closely following case rates, trajectory, community transmission, outbreaks, vaccination rates and demographic data related to new cases to assess the ongoing level of risk.
As of right now, the Jefferson County Health Department recommends the implementation of a mask requirement for all students, school staff and visitors in indoor settings.
“When case rates and other metrics holistically considered decrease to levels considered safe, the Jefferson County Health Department will notify school districts that face masks may be made optional,” the department stated in its new guidelines released Wednesday.
“Factors taken into consideration include case rates, trajectory, community transmission, outbreaks, vaccination rates and demographic data related to new cases,” the statement said.
“If masks are made optional and cases are seen to increase across the county or within the school, the health department may re-institute a recommendation to require face masks,” the new guidance said.
The health department recommended that all close contacts of people confirmed to have COVID-19 be quarantined.
The quarantine periods now recommended are shorter than those implemented last year, in keeping with recent research on the period of contagion.
The new quarantine periods will run 7 days or 10 days with appropriate testing and symptom monitoring, or 14 days with no conditions.
“The 14-day quarantine upon exposure remains the safest option,” the new guideline reads. “Vaccinated persons may refrain from quarantine but should wear a mask for 14 days when around others, unless tested negative three to five days after exposure.”
The health department noted that the Wisconsin Department of Health Services has made COVID-19 test resources available to any school interested in on-site testing to ensure that in-person learning is prioritized with minimal interruption.
“In addition to the mitigation measures included in guidance from the CDC and DHS, the Jefferson County Health Department strongly recommends vaccination to protect our community from COVID-19,” Scott said.
People may email any questions they might have for the department on this matter to JCHDSchoolSupport@jeffersoncountywi.gov.