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MONONA GROVE

Monona Grove School District faces staffing, contact tracing challenges amid COVID surge

With COVID-19 case numbers surging due to the omicron variant, the Monona Grove School District is working to keep school buildings open, despite staffing shortages and contact tracing challenges.

The Monona Grove School Board discussed the hurdles currently facing the district in a Jan. 12 meeting, and consulted with Greg DeMuri, a doctor with UW Pediatrics who regularly works with Dane County’s public health department and groups of local superintendents.

Contact tracing

Administrators said that the high volume of case numbers is putting significant strain on the district’s health team and the demand for contact tracing.

Christa Foster, director of student services and head of the health team, said that the team of two school nurses and five health assistants is stretched thin. And, because of shorter isolation periods and delayed test results, having “the right timeline to be able to do the contact tracing” is tough.

“When we have known information, we’re responding to that,” Foster said.

Superintendent Dan Olson said on Jan. 12 that the district is prioritizing contacting families of students who have tested positive, and continuing mitigation strategies.

A Jan. 12 message to families from the district advises that families should assume possible exposure.

“We are staying on top of contact tracing as best we can…but during this surge you should assume your child may have had close contact with someone and monitor symptoms very closely every day, regardless of whether you are contacted by our health team,” the letter, signed by Olson, said.

Elementary classrooms will continue to receive classroom notifications for positive tests, and middle and high school classes will rely on information from students who test positive related to close contacts, the message said.  Administrators in the letter ask families to continue monitoring for symptoms.

School board member Susan Fox proposed asking volunteers to help with the contact tracing process.

“(I) totally understand the stress that you’re all dealing with,” Fox said. “At some point, if there’s a point where you could use volunteers, there may be people in the community who have some experience that might be able to help.”

Staffing shortages

Olson added that with current staffing shortages, the district is “trying to be creative on how we utilize the subbing and what’s reasonable.”

“Everyone has stepped up,” he added.

In a Jan. 7 message to families, the district said teachers are covering each other’s classes, with specialist staff and even principals being pulled into classrooms. The district also hired a full-time building substitute for each school, and continues to seek subs.

“We believe at this point in the pandemic, an imperfect in-person day is better than switching to virtual,” the message, signed by Olson, said. “Our leadership team is firmly committed to remaining in-person, but staffing shortages are also affecting our schools.”

The message added that virtual learning is considered a last resort in the district. It said the district would consider extending the school day or school year as an alternative to virtual learning, or using time banked for snow days for emergency closures, especially for grades 4K-8. 

“The best thing is to have kids in school,” DeMuri said. “Some of the time away from school has been disastrous for kids” and their mental health.

“We want to keep kids in the classrooms as much as possible,” he continued. The “biggest really administrative challenges are going to be those staffing issues.”

Masks

DeMuri advised the board on the best masking choices for schools at this time, in light of recent guidance discouraging cloth masks in favor of surgical or N95 masks.

“I think masks are essential right now, and I don’t see that changing after the early February deadline of the Dane County mask mandate,” DeMuri said.

DeMuri said that the best mask for children in schools is the mask that they will wear. Cloth masks, surgical masks or something stronger are all better than not wearing a mask. And finding the right fit for your child is the most important thing, he said.

“The most important mask is one that fits you well and is comfortable,” DeMuri said. “If a cloth mask is the mask that a child will wear throughout the school day, that’s the best mask for them.”

“Every person that puts on a mask could potentially be saving another life,” he added.

Masks should be well-fitting, DeMuri added, and should fit tight to the side of the face to keep droplets in. Avoid masks that "pouch" on the sides, he said.

Administrators said masking is being readily enforced at school, even though students and staff may be feeling some “fatigue and exhaustion” related to masks, Foster said.

Testing

The school district offers in-house PCR COVID-19 testing. Many pharmacies and testing sites in Dane County are experiencing long delays in receiving test results, due to the high volume of tests happening now, and testing shortages.

PCR testing is available through the district every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at Glacial Drumlin School from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and at the school district office, 5301 Monona Drive, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. No appointment is required, and testing is offered to school district students, staff and families.

If students one or more of the following symptoms, they should stay home from school and get tested, the Jan. 7 message to families said. Those symptoms are cough, new loss of taste or smell, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing.

If students have two or more of the following symptoms, they should stay home and get tested. Those symptoms are congestion/runny nose, nausea, headache, fatigue, body aches, sore throat or chills.

DeMuri added that, in response to the idea that people should get COVID-19 and “get it over with,” continuing to avoid the virus is important to reduce further strain on healthcare systems and allow time for future medical advances like stronger vaccines and treatments to develop.

Morale

Foster said that the current surge is putting strain on staff and students, both in workload and in mental health impact. Staff, students and families, Foster said, are facing these challenges well, all things considered.

“I’m proud of how well our teachers” and staff have responded, Foster said. They “keep the chaos away from students.”

It’s been a “real team effort of working together to be able to manage our classes and keep our schools open,” Olson said.

“Thank you for trying your best to keep safe in your community (and) doing what’s needed,” Board member Andrew McKinney said. “Thank you (staff) for doing the best you can.”

“I have the utmost optimism that we’ll get through this,” DeMuri said. “We’ve made it this far…We have had a lot of deaths, but we’re moving forward, we’re adapting…things will get better.”