One county health department. Multiple public school districts. Upward of 30 public, private and parochial schools. Countless questions.
What if all of those schools and districts called the county health department directly with the numerous queries that come up daily related to the coronavirus pandemic and planning for the new school year?
Now, instead of an overloaded public health department answering every query, Jefferson County has a new county-school liaison who serves as a resource and conduit to connect educational decision makers with information in this continually shifting pandemic climate.
Pam Streich, the recently retired superintendent of the Lake Mills School District, officially took on her new role as school-county liaison on July 1.
Streich had retired just the day before and already had been involved in county-level planning as part of a consortium of local superintendents who were trying to arrive at some common ground regarding how to reopen schools safely mid-pandemic.
“In May and June, the schools were starting to come up with some plans for reopening in the fall,” Streich said. “We were advised that every decision we made should be reviewed by the local health department, our insurance carriers and a legal team.”
As the head of the Lake Mills public schools, Streich found herself consulting regularly with Gail Scott, director of the Jefferson County Health Department, on numerous issues.
Realizing all of the other superintendents or private school heads in the county likely were asking the same questions, Streich asked Scott, “How do you possibly keep up with all this?”
“I can’t,” Scott reportedly responded.
It was at about this time the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction had come out with its 83-page document on safe school opening guidelines, which actually was some 300 pages if you included all of the links and added documentation, Streich said.
Meanwhile, the county health department also was overseeing the local public health response; documenting tests, cases and outbreaks; and keeping tabs on the latest regulations and guidelines coming out for not only schools, but also restaurants, child-care centers, other businesses and public and private institutions.
With her retirement already in the works, Streich asked if there was anything she could do to help.
Essentially, she was recruited into a part-time position, developed with direction from Scott and Jefferson County Administrator Ben Wehmeier.
In her new role as county-school liaison, Streich attended her first meeting July 2, having enjoyed one day of “retirement” from her previous role as Lake Mills schools head.
“Our thought was that I would be the front-line communicator between the schools and the health department,” Streich said. “Schools would come to me with their questions, concerns, frustrations and challenges. I might not have the information they needed, but it’s my job to find it.”
She said having a designated liaison has expedited communications between educational planners and the county greatly.
Streich already had been among the county school superintendents who had formed a consortium earlier in the summer to coordinate school opening plans.
“Back in June, we had started meeting together every Thursday, and we invited in not only the public districts, but all the private and parochial schools,” Streich said.
“We decided our first task was to come up with some guiding principles we could agree on as educators,” she said.
First among these principles was the statement of intention to host five-day-a-week, face-to-face instruction if it could be done safely.
The group spent its first week crafting those guiding principles, which the respective school heads have each taken to their school boards.
One of the most controversial elements of the superintendents’ statement was the move toward requiring students and staff to wear facemasks, at least where social distancing could not be maintained.
“We really struggled with the issue of facial coverings, but as the weeks progressed, it became apparent this is what it would take to be able to bring the students back to the schools,” she said.
All of the superintendents and parochial school representatives signed on to the guidelines the group developed, and these now have gone out to the individual school boards for a decision.
Many of the boards of education already have seen, and given a nod to, the guidelines for continued planning purposes, although the Watertown Unified School District only has taken it through the committee level so far and Palmyra-Eagle Area School District is a little behind the other districts due to staff changes, Streich said.As pandemic conditions continue to evolve on the local, state and national levels, this is a precarious time to be making decisions about opening schools, Streich conceded. Yet, if districts are to be at all ready, they need to start making accommodations now, even if those plans must change as conditions change or new information comes out, she said.
“There are so many components to be considered,” Streich said.To help schools as they consider decisions on numerous levels and in numerous areas, Streich has compiled a database covering 150 topics and a repository of resources available to all Jefferson County schools.
Some of the topics involved issues on which the health department had to weigh in. Others required information or clarification from insurance representatives or legal advisers.
One of the big questions schools have been wrestling with is how they’ll know when they should close down a school due to a single case or outbreak of COVID-19.
Streich noted that Jefferson County has partnered with an epidemiologist to help answer that question, taking into account space and other considerations at each individual school.
Another big issue is how to make sure staff members’ needs are met.
“Opinion out there in the educational community is really mixed,” Streich said. “Some teachers are eager to reopen, saying, ‘Let’s do this!’ while others are hesitant, or they want to support others who are hesitant.”
More considerations include what contact tracing would look like in schools and how that would be achieved, and the legal minutiae as to how much information about a case or outbreak could be released to parents and the community without violating families’ privacy.
Another important part of Streich’s job is listening — to the superintendents and district administrators, who carry heavy responsibilities while negotiating unfamiliar ground; to the school boards, the elected representatives of their local communities and schools; and to the parents whose children will be most affected.Streich has been attending meetings of all of the area school boards since taking over in her new role.
In the coming weeks, most of the board will be making formal presentations and adopting their school reopening plans.
There will be a lot of public input to take in, but planners also have to keep an ear to the ground for new developments as scientists learn more about COVID-19 and governments enact various measures in response to the pandemic.
Another looming decision has to do with what athletics will look like in the fall.
The Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association has produced a set of guidelines tied to the comparative risk levels in each county and region, Streich said, but decisions about whether to move forward with fall sports will be made at the local level.
A complicating factor in Jefferson County is that one community, Watertown, has its own health department, and that city recently downgraded to “Phase 1” of its reopening plan following a surge of COVID-19 cases.
As the local landscape keeps changing, it is difficult to predict exactly what school will look like in the future, but with the fall semester just six weeks away, educational planners are trying to make sure they’re ready for a number of different scenarios.“My role in all of this is to be another resource as people try to navigate all of these possible situations,” Streich said. “I am really glad Jefferson County saw the need for this position to support the schools.”