Kennedy School Nurses 111821 01-12012021192913 (copy)

Nurse Laurel Cornelius takes a phone call from nurse she is mentoring while simultaneously doing contact tracing on her laptop in the nurse’s office at Kennedy Elementary School in Madison on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021.

The Madison Metropolitan School District added 251 COVID-19 cases to its case tracker over the past week amid a delayed return from winter break.

It’s the highest number of cases over any seven-day period since Aug. 18 amid the Omicron variant wave that is sending case numbers skyrocketing across the country. The district also added 541 close contacts over the week.

The jump in cases also comes with the most significant increase in staff positives of the semester.

The district’s case count, updated weekly on Wednesdays, shows that over the past two weeks, 132 staff and 165 students tested positive. The previous two-week high for staff cases was 32, which came in the Dec. 29 update.

Since Aug. 18, the district has totaled 1,481 positive cases and 7,228 close contacts. That includes 297 cases and 804 close contacts over the past two weeks.

More than 25,000 students attend MMSD schools and more than 4,000 staff members work in the district. All of the cases over the past week occurred while students and staff were on winter break.

District officials told parents and staff last Thursday that they would extend winter break through Wednesday (today), with students returning to virtual learning this week Thursday and Friday. While they expressed optimism for a Jan. 10 return to in-person instruction, they have not shared the specific metrics that would allow that return.

Among the challenges officials cited were already-existing “critical staff shortages” combined with the growing case rates, something other districts around the country have also cited when announcing similar decisions.

While the case count tracker does not break down recent student and staff cases by school building, a memo provided to the School Board last week Friday showed that schools were seeing varied numbers of absence requests from teachers. Lapham Elementary, Whitehorse Middle and West High, for example, all had six teacher absences already as of Dec. 30.

Among all staff absences already known at that point, 39.65% were unfilled.

The School Board will meet at 5 p.m. Wednesday to further discuss a safe return to school buildings. The district is expected to make an announcement on plans for next week on Thursday.

MMSD’s health advisers said last Friday that in school is the safest place for children to be as long as mitigation measures are in place, with spread less likely in school than in the community, where fewer mitigation measures might be required.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 case numbers around Dane County, Wisconsin and the country are reaching pandemic record highs. While hospitalizations are not trending as poorly as they did in previous waves, Dane County is still nearing its pandemic high levels of patients with COVID-19 and those in the ICU, according to Public Health Madison & Dane County data.

The recent wave has set case records, some by far, for the following age groups in Dane County: 0-4, 5-7, 8-11, 12-17, 23-29, 30-39, 40-49, 50-59, 60-69 and 70-79. That covers most of the school-age population and the school staff population.

Other districts in the area have remained open, but leaders have also acknowledged staff are stretched with smaller substitute teacher pools than in recent years. It has left teachers covering classes during their prep time and administrators also helping out in classrooms, multiple area district officials told the Cap Times this week.

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to tctvoice@captimes.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.