Randall School 120920 07-02102021135543 (copy)

The hallways of Randall School in Madison remained quiet and empty as students continued virtual learning in December 2020. The district will return to virtual learning — briefly, officials hope — following an extended winter break.

Madison Metropolitan School District officials hope to bring students back in-person on Monday, Jan. 10, but they haven’t determined specific COVID-19 metrics that will be required for that to happen.

“It’s not just the case counts, unless it goes catastrophic,” superintendent Carlton Jenkins said, adding that mitigation strategies like testing and improved masking will also be factored in. “We’re very optimistic about Jan. 10, (but I) can’t give you anything more definite on that because we don’t control the virus.”

The district announced Thursday shortly before 5:30 p.m. that winter break, scheduled to end Monday, would be extended through Wednesday, Jan. 5, with students learning virtually at least Thursday and Friday. Officials are expected to announce a decision for the following week on Jan. 6.

Friday, officials held a press conference to further explain the decision and shared that staffing shortages and the timing of the holidays, when some people traveled and gathered with family and friends, factored into the decision. The district wants to avoid a situation where school restarts and then must pause because of a high number of staff quarantining or testing positive, Jenkins said.

“We’re pausing so that we can get back in school and stay in school,” Jenkins said. “Based on the number of individuals who are self-reporting at this point and other information we’ve gathered from our screener, we think that taking this time to pause will allow us to be able to get additional testing during this week for some of our students, some of our staff showing various symptoms.”

No other school districts in the area have announced plans to delay returning from break, though some around the country have made similar decisions.

From Dec. 15-29, with case count updates on both Dec. 22 and 29, the district added 191 positive COVID-19 cases among students and staff and identified 1,064 close contacts. From Dec. 15-22, there were 145 positives and 801 close contacts — with the former the highest number in a given week since the beginning of the school year.

Of the 191 positive cases over the past two weeks, 32 were among staff — the highest in any two-week period since the district began separating staff and student positives in its case count earlier this fall.

According to the Public Health Madison & Dane County data dashboard, there were 1,298 new cases in the county on Dec. 29 — a pandemic record that came the day after the previous record was set. Tests are increasingly difficult to find, meanwhile, and some cases may not be reported if they are identified only by an at-home rapid test.

Hospitalizations and ICU patients with COVID-19 have not quite reached the pandemic highs of November and December 2020, but are nearing them, with hospital officials reporting they are nearing breaking points and putting care for non-COVID emergency patients at risk, as well.

The School Board held a special workshop meeting Friday afternoon, where “plans for a delayed return to school from winter break” was the only item on the agenda. Board member Cris Carusi said during the meeting she wanted to hear district officials commit to the Dec. 10 reopening rather than view it as “aspirational.”

“We need to be committed to reopening on Monday unless something happens where we can’t because like half our staff are out,” Carusi said. “Every day that we keep kids in virtual learning is a day when mental health issues are going to become worse for our students, is a day when students are more likely to disengage from school and I think is a day that is going to lead to several more days of challenges when kids get back into buildings.”

Medical experts at the virtual press conference, who the district has consulted throughout the pandemic, stressed that in-person school is generally a safer place for students to be, as studies have shown that spread is not worse in school buildings than the general community.

“We did find out important information last school year that community activity was not predictive of transmission within a school,” Dr. Gregory DeMuri said. “Kind of paradoxically, schools appear to be a safer place to be than in a household, where most transition occurs.”

Uncertainty remains

The announcement of the change for next week came after 5 p.m. on the eve of a holiday weekend, frustrating many parents who shared their unhappiness on social media as they scrambled to plan for where their children would be next week.

Jenkins said the district “would have loved” to make an announcement earlier, but the uncertainty of the pandemic made that a challenge as they waited to determine the best decision.

“I don’t know if there could have been a perfect time,” he said. “I’m apologetic that it had to be now, but at the same time I would rather make a recommendation that’s going to ensure the safety of everyone at this time.”

Without specific numbers to watch for that will determine whether school will return, parents will certainly be on edge as the end of next week approaches when officials are expected to offer an update about the week of Jan. 10. Jenkins said the district’s metrics team will meet Jan. 6 to make a decision.

“Our goal, yes, is to get back and make an announcement Thursday based on where we are, but something catastrophically could happen, right?” he said. “I can’t control the virus.”

He said officials hope to use this week’s “pause” to order more masks and consider ways to address staffing concerns at school building levels. Pre-pandemic solutions to shortages like doubling up classes for a day or increasing the size of a study hall aren’t an option in the pandemic, given the mitigation strategies in place, Jenkins added.

“When we say we want to pause to open back up in a way that's going to be sustainable, we're looking at the number of vacancies. Each school may have to do some shifting to be able to keep our district rolling, even if we have extraordinary case counts in a particular school,” Jenkins said.

‘Critical staffing shortages’

The announcement about the extended winter break Thursday twice cited “critical staffing shortages” among the reasons for the change.

Friday, MMSD chief of human resources Tracey Caradine explained that as of Thursday, the district had 123 absences for next week, with about 39% of those unfilled.

“Those absences are going up steadily as people are coming back from vacation as people are starting to put them in,” Caradine said. “So these are just absences that are in our absence management system.”

Earlier in this school year, she said, the unfilled rate has gotten as high as 49.8% in October, and was at 47% in November and 43% in December. In addition to some unfilled positions, there is also a shortage of substitutes, which adds to the challenge if more staff are testing positive or needing to quarantine and be out of school.

“We’ve just seen a decrease each month with our ability to staff,” Jenkins said. “Right before break, we were nearly at a breaking point.”

School Board meets

No School Board members expressed direct opposition to the plan during a meeting Friday afternoon that was noticed late Thursday night, though most shared varying degrees of concern about the effect it would have on students and families.

There was no vote at the meeting, which featured only a discussion of the extended winter break with district officials and one of the district’s health experts. The conversation included detailed discussions about how the virus transmits, testing and the effectiveness of the vaccines amid omicron, as well as the mental health and social-emotional effects of an extended break.

“We have to acknowledge the mental health impact that this has had,” board president Ali Muldrow said. “The anxiety folks are experiencing around this shift is palpable and it is not something any of us can take for granted or dismiss.”

Board member Savion Castro expressed disappointment with the position schools have been in throughout the pandemic, specifically noting the widespread unavailability of rapid tests.

“The lack of a national coordinated response has been very frustrating,” Castro said.

MMSD acting interim director of health services Kari Stampfli said the district has “very limited capacity” for testing next week, with about 3,000 rapid antigen tests, some schools with a COVID Clinic partnership and 7,000 PCR tests. She added, though, that staff shortages down the line of getting test results are contributing to delays in getting results, as well.

“It’s the actual tests themselves that we are extremely short on, and that is purely a supply chain, demand issue,” Stampfli said. “It is not for our lack of trying to procure and obtain these tests.”

Carusi suggested everyone needed to be as clear as possible when discussing COVID-19 data and called the effect of closures “astronomical” on families.

“We talk about listening to science a lot and I'm kind of worried that phrase is becoming a cliche, we say it so often,” Carusi said. “I’m hearing almost unanimously from scientists that our schools with mitigation strategies are safer for kids than the community, and I think that needs to be a foundational principle on all our decision-making moving forward.”

Board member Christina Gomez Schmidt said she hoped the board could receive an update on staffing levels early next week.

“I’m hoping that with our screening we can get a better sense of this right at the beginning of the week to know what we’re dealing with,” she said. “This is really important for knowing our capacity for getting our students back to in-person instruction.”

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