“What a year – it seems like forever ago when this all started.”
The statement made by Marshall School District school nurse Heidi Woods was likely one anyone could agree with.
Both the Marshall and Waterloo school nurses provided reports to their respective school boards to outline an entire year managing coronavirus.
“I took the job very seriously, I felt like it was my job to protect 1,000 people or more including the community of Marshall,” Woods said.
During the 2020-2021 academic year, districts across the state had to determine the best method to serve its students. For Marshall, it began the school year entirely remote but students eventually had the option to return to in-person learning, which was rolled out in January and February, or continue to attend remotely, four days per week; Waterloo offered in-person instruction four-days a week with concurrent remote instruction;
According to the Marshall Public Schools COVID-19 dashboard, which was updated throughout the school year as needed, as of June 15 there had been a total of 12 students who tested positive for the virus and 14 staff during the recently concluded school year. There were no active cases as of that date. Overall, Woods said 482 students and staff needed some type of COVID-19 monitoring. It should be noted that families were not required to report student cases of coronavirus when the children were not coming to the school buildings, thus it is possible more students tested positive for the virus, had symptoms or needed to quarantine but it was not reported to the district.
Woods pointed out to the best of her knowledge, none of the school population was hospitalized with the virus, which she considered to be significant.
“I’m certainly appreciative of the mitigation efforts that families and the district implemented throughout the year,” said Marshall Superintendent Dan Grady.
He credited the community working to limit any spread of the virus, the district’s quarantining students throughout the year and “without a doubt masking helped limit the spread.”
The report provided to the Waterloo School Board indicated during the 2020-2021 academic year, there had been 55 confirmed cases among students and 13 staff member tested positive for the virus. In Waterloo, a total of 663 students and staff ether had COVID-19, were required to quarantine due to school (187 total) or community (119 total) contact, or had symptoms but tested negative for the virus (289 total).
“I thought our numbers were good, we certainly did not expect a zero, but we consistently were below the general public’s percentages of cases,” said Waterloo Superintendent Brian Henning. “School was the safest place to be in our community when it came to COVID-19.”
He believes the district implementing daily screening and sending home any students who were symptomatic had the biggest impact on keeping the number of positive COVID-19 cases in the district down.
“Those students really never got a chance to be with the larger population of students so we kept healthy kids away from sick kids,” he said.
Borchert reported all Waterloo school staff were trained in COVID-19 mitigation, prevention and district guidelines. Specific staff were trained in isolation room procedures and all office staff received training in quarantine and isolation education.
Henning said the district used the isolation room during the first seven months of the school year but as cases decreased the need for the room decreased; it was closed in early April.
During a recent Waterloo School Board meeting, Pupil Services Director Victoria Kalscheuer said Borchert, who was unable to attend the meeting, noted the number of visits to the nurses office were significantly down – there were 635 visits during the most recent school year compared to two years ago when there were more than 2,000 visits to Borchert’s office. The school nurse believed this may have been due to the restrictions the district had in place.
“If students had symptoms or fevers they were either sent home or at home for a number of days until they had a negative (coronavirus) test,” Kalscheuer said. “She was pretty thrilled the teachers had thermometers in the classroom and so we’re hoping we can continue to have teachers utilize that as a first line of defense when kids are saying they don’t feel good next year.”
Having thermometers in the classroom next year did not necessarily mean students would be screened for COVID-19, but instead could serve as a first line of defense to determine if the child has a fever before sending children to the nurse’s office.
Both districts had several staff who worked with the district nurses as contract tracers to ensure all parents were notified if children had been close contact with someone who tested positive for the virus.
“We created an enormous number of spreadsheets and (ELC Principal) Rich (Peters) and I made letters and documents and – you name it, we made it,” Woods said.
Woods believed the district’s preparation and management of the virus “stretched us in good ways and challenged us but I think we rose to the challenge.”
She said the mitigation strategies put into place by the district worked well. Woods indicated she may have been a bit overaggressive with contact tracing but were able to keep everyone safe.
Looking back, Henning believes offering in-person and remote instruction for the entire year was a good situation, but he knows it took a toll on the teachers and staff.
“While it worked great for one year, it is not sustainable with our current staff levels. We would need to add staff to commit to something like that long-term,” he said. “Parents really appreciated the choice for their students and family.”
As for the Marshall School District, Grady said the school was restricted on when it could allow students back into the buildings by orders released by Public Health Madison & Dane County. The order was overturned by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in early September. The district decided to open the buildings to all students after winter break.
“We wanted to get as many families that were interested in transitioning to in-person learning back into school as possible,” Grady said. “We were confident through masking, social distancing students and ongoing cleaning and mitigation that we would be as safe a learning environment as we could provide.”