Schools shift to virtual learning amid growing COVID-19 numbers
By Ben Rodgers
BROWN COUNTY – All school districts in the Greater Green Bay area joined the Green Bay district in going to virtual instruction with COVID-19 numbers on the rise.
On Friday, Sept. 25, the Howard-Suamico, Ashwaubenon and De Pere school districts joined the Green Bay school district in moving to virtual instruction.
On Monday, Sept. 28, West De Pere, and Notre Dame Academy followed suit.
“Evidence points to unsafe behaviors in our community as the source for the surge in COVID-19 infections,” said Howard-Suamico Superintendent Damian LaCroix in a letter Sept. 25. “After meeting with leaders from Bellin and Prevea in the last 24 hours, I learned that hospital staff and capacity in our community are burdened and at the point of crisis. I learned that, in their words, ‘Not a single instance of community spread has been due to schools being open.’ Rather, it is the persistent spread of the virus outside our schools that is putting the safety of students and staff at risk. While I firmly believe that schools are the best and safest place for our children, the guidance from our local healthcare leaders makes it clear that even an exceptional COVID-19 mitigation plan in schools cannot withstand the current levels of community spread.”
Howard-Suamico schools switched to virtual learning Wednesday, Sept. 30, and the letter states the model will stay in place “until community health conditions improve,” but the district “will re-evaluate our status every two weeks based on criteria under development with the support of the Brown County Health Department and local health care leaders.”
The district’s COVID-19 dashboard reported, as of Sept. 24, seven staff members who tested positive and 46 in quarantine and 11 students who tested positive with 249 in quarantine.
The Ashwaubenon School District said virtual learning will continue until at least Oct. 16.
Ashwaubenon Superintendent Kurt Weyers said “local hospitals being burdened by critical numbers of hospitalizations,” played a role in the decision.
Weyers said an inability toward the end of last week to staff the district’s schools with enough substitute teachers was also a key factor in the switch to virtual learning with eight teacher and four support staff positions going unfilled Friday, Sept. 25.
“Our students followed through with wearing their masks daily and following safety protocols in order to continue attending school in person,” he said in a Sept. 25 letter. “It saddens me that even with all of these efforts, we need to move to a remote learning environment. My hope is that those in the community will work together to mitigate the spread of this disease.”
Weyers said the district will re-evaluate the situation based on information from the Brown County Health Department and local health care leaders.
As of Sept. 28, the district’s COVID-19 dashboard, the Jaguar Health Report, reported two staff members who tested positive and 21 in quarantine, and six students who tested positive with 191 students in quarantine.
On the east side of the Fox River, the De Pere school district also pointed to local hospitals and their current capacity.
“In addition, as the infection rates in De Pere and Brown County continue to rise, our three local hospitals are reporting they have reached a critical stage with the number of hospitalizations they are experiencing,” said De Pere Superintendent Ben Villarruel. “Please know that we are taking this action to protect the health and safety of our students, staff and families.”
Villarruel’s Sept. 25 letter said virtual instruction began Sept. 28 with a tentative return date to in-person instruction of Oct. 12.
“Community spread of the virus affects our ability to provide in-person instruction at our schools,” Villarruel said. “We ask that your family take the necessary precautions to help in mitigating the spread of COVID-19. Please continue wearing a face covering, practicing social distancing, avoiding large group gatherings and staying home when sick.”
The district’s COVID-19 dashboard reports, with no date listed, 31 active cases of students and staff combined with 57 staff members in quarantine.
Across the river, the West De Pere school district is moving to virtual instruction Oct. 1, with a goal to return to in-person instruction Oct. 19.
“We are deeply saddened by our need to change course at this time,” said West De Pere Superintendent Dennis Krueger in a letter Sept. 28. “It is believed that due to unsafe behaviors within the greater community, the community is experiencing an exponential spread of COVID-19. Because of this, we are also finding it difficult to maintain adequate staffing levels within the School District of West De Pere.”
He also said health care leaders have informed him not a single instance of community spread has been tied to schools reopening. “Our hope is that those in the community will work together to mitigate the spread, thus lessening the burden on our health care systems,” Krueger said. “We need everyone’s help in returning to in-person learning. Please continue to wear face coverings, practice social distancing, avoid large gatherings, wash your hands and remain home when sick.”
Other factors, such as community spread, staffing capacity and local hospitalization capacity will influence the district’s decision to resume in-person instruction or to extend remote instruction.
The West De Pere dashboard reported as of Sept. 29, 27 students who tested positive for COVID-19, resulting in 466 out for COVID-19 related reasons and three positive three members, resulting in 42 out for COVID-19 related reasons.
Notre Dame Academy announced the transition to virtual classes Wednesday, Sept. 30, with a return to in-person instruction “when internal school conditions and external health conditions in Brown County allow.”
“A careful review of our internal data within the current external environment has led us to move to a virtual environment in order (to) secure the health and safety of students, faculty and staff,” NDA President Tom Kiely said in a letter Monday, Sept. 28. “The NDA community will be in close communication throughout the virtual interval to monitor all academic, religious and extracurricular programs as they transition to this new scenario.”
Notre Dame Academy does not have a dashboard to track cases, but did report, as of Sept. 24 there were six active cases.