Education officials can anticipate the COVID-10 coronavirus will remain in circulation up to 18 more months as work continues to prepare for the upcoming school year, according to a state plan to reopen Wisconsin schools released Monday.

State Department of Public Instruction officials believe the virus will remain in circulation until a vaccine is developed and widely used and a vaccine is not likely to be in broad use during the next 12-18 months. The 87-page DPI document warns another wave of infections could occur resulting in changes to operations or closure while improvements in understanding the virus and in testing will allow public health officials to act with greater precision when taking steps to slow the rate of infection. 

The document, EDUCATION FORWARD Safely and Successfully Reopening Wisconsin Schools, expects schools to reopen in the fall, but anticipate it looking very different amid the pandemic. It provides mostly guidelines and suggestions for possible instruction delivery formats, leaving final teaching and other student, family and staff support decisions to local officials. It suggests schools consider smaller class sizes, shift schedules to reduce the number of children in a building at one time and focus on mental health supports and emotional well-being if students return to classrooms in the fall. The guidance goes over possible schedule setups, cleaning and staff considerations and school building layouts and modifications that could minimize the risk of spreading the coronavirus.

But DPI is also telling schools to be prepared to swiftly change plans next school year like switching between in-person, physically distanced and online learning depending on the status of the pandemic. Modified scheduling recommendations include 4-day weeks, 2-day rotations, elementary face-to-face with secondary virtual learning and A/B week rotations where the school population is split into two groups alternating weekly between in-person and virtual learning.

It also recommends screening of students and staff for symptoms; social distancing in all settings and isolation and timely removal of students and staff who are displaying symptoms. It also alerts officials to the possibility of death, fear, loss and isolation and the need for “whole child” supports in addressing students needs.

“We are currently sorting through the guidance that was provided, meeting locally with our leadership team, area superintendents, and Chippewa County public health. We will be putting together the Chieftain Forward Plan in the upcoming days and weeks,” Lake Holcombe School District Administrator Kurt Lindau said.

Short-term closures of schools will remain a possibility until a vaccine is widely used, the report states. Children and staff with significant health conditions will continue to be especially vulnerable during this time. 

Teaching and reinforcing prevention behaviors like handwashing and coughing and sneezing etiquette, and promoting influenza vaccinations will continue to be essential strategies in slowing the spread of this and other infectious diseases. Frequent cleaning and disinfection of high-touch surfaces are needed throughout this period. 

In April, schools statewide were ordered closed for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. This week, Wisconsin Department of Health Services reported more than 25,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and nearly 750 deaths in the state attributed to the coronavirus. Rusk County has reported 11 confirmed cases, one hospitalization and no deaths.

The DPI report states deaths from COVID-19 are possible while the virus is in circulation, especially children and adults in high-risk categories. Fear, loss, and isolation may result in the need for increased mental health supports. Communications with staff, families, and students are critical to the success of safe return to school. 

The report states some staff and students may not feel safe coming into school buildings and may need to work and study from home. Those over age 60 are in a higher-risk category due to COVID-19.  Staff may have underlying conditions putting them at high risk for infection as well. Students may have underlying conditions or live with family members who are at high risk. 

“A second wave of infections could result in site, district, county-wide, or regional school closures, in which case instructional models must be able to accommodate shifts between in-person and virtual learning,” the report states.

Recommended preparations at the school level include rearranging student desks and common seating spaces to maximize the space between students with desks facing in the same direction to reduce transmission caused from virus-containing droplets through talking, coughing and sneezing. Consideration should be given to using visual aids like painter’s tape and stickers to illustrate traffic flow and appropriate spacing to support social distancing. 

Modify classes where students are likely to be in very close contact by bringing music, art, physical education and other specialists to individual classrooms versus rotating all kids through a shared space that is not able to be cleaned with each new student introduction.  Whenever possible, hold physical education and music classes outside and encourage students to spread out. Discourage the sharing of music stands. It is important that students in music classes maintain social distancing. Have students in one line or stagger spacing to ensure maximum distancing. Recognize singing and playing of some musical instruments increases the risk of transmission of COVID-19 via respiratory droplets. Consider increasing the amount of social distancing beyond six feet. 

Arrange classrooms to allow teachers to practice social distancing. Turn teachers’ desks to face in the same direction, rather than facing students, to reduce transmission caused from virus-containing droplets from talking, coughing and sneezing. 

Erect partitions in open spaces with high risk of interaction and contact like the playground and blacktop to create several separate areas to prevent large groupings. 

The report cites the Wisconsin Department of Health Services that recommends adults and students over age 2 wear cloth face coverings, but face masks should not be worn while engaged in physical activity. 

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