A newly adopted county plan recommends at what point Jefferson County schools should shut down face-to-face classes and switch to virtual learning. A nine-page document titled “Reopening Jefferson County Schools and Addressing the Spread of COVID-19” was released last week, laying out the metrics when schools should be closed down or reopened among other topics.
The county has set an 8% rolling positivity rate as a threshold for school shutdowns in order to avert potential large-scale outbreaks.
As of Tuesday morning, the county’s positivity rate (calculated as a 14-day average) was 9.4%.
“Almost more troubling is the increase we have seen over the last days, because that indicates the trend is worsening,” said Samroz Jakvani, Jefferson County’s new epidemiologist.
If the positivity rate reaches the threshold, Jakvani recommends all Jefferson County schools close and instruction be conducted virtually until the trend remains on a downward trajectory for 14 days.
He noted in areas of the United States where schools have already opened, there have been several large-scale outbreaks in small and large schools. This is something he hopes to avoid.
The Jefferson County trend had been increasing, but at a lower rate, said Jakvani, who has been closely following the continually changing countywide trends and working with Jefferson County for the last month to provide tailored guidance in response to the pandemic.
Jakvani took the lead in preparing the recommendations for the county a couple of weeks ago, but held off releasing these for a week while waiting for the state to release its own guidelines.
Now, the state’s recommendations have been pushed back and now might not be released for another couple of weeks.
Jakvani opted to go the county recommendations immediately to give school planners more guidance as they prepared for the imminent start to classes.
“We really thought the schools needed this guidance now — if not a couple weeks ago,” Jakvani said. “What we released was the most critical information.”
The county will update its recommendations based on guidelines from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.
The big questions
Jakvani made sure to address the concerns brought up by local school administrators in his document. One of the biggest questions school planners had was when individuals, schools and districts should shift from an in-person learning environment to virtual instruction.
The plan notes any student and staff member who shows any single symptom of COVID-19 to shift to virtual learning for three days, and if symptoms persist or worsen, they should extend the period of virtual learning to 10 days.
As to what happens in the school buildings, the plan calls for students and staff who spent more than 15 minutes cumulatively with a person confirmed to have COVID-19 move to virtual learning for 14 days from the time of exposure.
This would apply whether or not those involved wore masks or followed the recommended 6-foot social distancing.
The county strongly recommends anyone who learns they might have been exposed to COVID-19 get tested.
The county plan recommends siblings of students who have tested positive for COVID-19 should also shift to virtual learning for 10 to 14 days after the positive student has been tested or experienced symptoms.
Classmates of those symptoms would only be asked to shift to virtual learning if the sibling of the initial student with the confirmed case is also confirmed to have the virus.
The plan recommends any classroom a COVID-19 positive individual spent a total of 15 minutes in should be closed for three days for deep cleaning and disinfection. Additionally, custodial staff should wait a full day, if possible, before entering affected classrooms or areas.
As to when a whole building should shift to virtual learning, the plan recommends such a closing if three COVID-19 cases are confirmed in students or staff within a week.
If this happens, the county recommends the whole school building shift to virtual learning for three days. During this time, contract tracing should be conducted to identify the individuals to whom the disease might have spread, and to allow time for others to present symptoms, possibly identifying further spread.
As to when an entire district should shift to virtual learning, the plan calls for this measure if the positivity rate in Jefferson County reaches or exceeds 8%, or if the infections through community spread reaches or exceeds 60%.
“If this happens, the likelihood we’d have several students in school who are exposing others to the disease is quite high,” Jakvani said.
The county’s plan does allow for some flexibility to adapt to changing conditions. For example, if the positivity rate remains under the threshold, but other key metrics worsen, the county may issue new recommendations taking these factors into consideration. These could include case rate, contact tracing capability and function, hospital capacity, and testing capacity and availability.
County officials are also keeping a close eye on the positivity and community spread rates in surrounding counties and communities, which could affect the trajectory of cases in Jefferson County.
While Jefferson County remains under the threshold for recommended shutdowns, school districts and residents are urged to take strong measures to minimize spread.
“We will never eliminate all risk,” Jakvani said. “But we can significantly reduce the chance of transmission.”
This is why all schools in Jefferson County have adopted common principles, committing to protective measures including social distancing, enhanced sanitizing procedures, and the wearing of face-coverings for everyone inside school buildings.
One of the recommendations deals with the use of air conditioning and ventilation systems. If at all possible, these should bring outside air in, rather than recirculating inside air or blowing it across a room.
This is of particular concern when people are unmasked, as while eating. A well-known case involves a restaurant in which several COVID-19 cases were traced to a single asymptomatic diner, and the air conditioning which circulated over the person’ table and then across several other tables located nearby.
The disease spread from that individual to 10 people from three families, affecting those in the path of the air conditioning.
In addition, Jakvani said it’s important for anyone with any potential COVID-19 symptoms to stay home.
“The more we abide by these proven preventive measures, the better the chance students will be able to return to school in the fall, and that schools can remain open,” he said.
Gail Scott, director of the Jefferson County Health Department, recommends all county residents, not just those in schools, closely follow public health recommendations to minimize the spread of the virus.
Scott stressed individuals who feel ill should definitely stay at home just in case they have the virus to avoid infecting others.
“This is really important,” she said. “If you feel sick — if you have any symptoms, stay home. I hear so many stories of people who go to work when they’re not feeling well and by the time they get tested, they have potentially exposed a whole bunch of people.”
Children or adults who have existing health conditions should connecting with the health care provider before determining whether to go to school or work.
“The science on how COVID-19 reacts with other underlying disorders is still emerging,” Jakvani said.