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De Pere schools keeping virtual instruction through Nov. 6

By Ben Rodgers

DE PERE – The De Pere school board learned at a committee meeting Monday, Oct. 5, district schools will remain closed to in-person instruction through at least Nov. 6.

“Based on some of the information you’ve heard today and the information being given throughout the week through the medical community, it’s my decision to extend the virtual environment until Friday, Nov. 6,” said Superintendent Ben Villarruel. “At that time, we would make a decision whether to continue with the virtual environment or come back face-to-face (instruction) Monday, Nov. 9.”

Villarruel said the decision to stay with virtual instruction is his to make as part of the district’s return-to-school plan, but the decision to return to in-person instruction will be based on multiple factors.

“It will be based on the community spread that we are experiencing,” he said, “and one thing that continues to get asked of me is what does the criteria look like, and what numbers are you looking at to make a decision, and that is a question that all 420 superintendents in Wisconsin really wish somebody from the CDC or federal government or state government would make.”

The board heard from Joseph Connelly, district data and assessment specialist, on a series of graphs and charts he created that are being used in the district’s COVID-19 dashboard.

“I have been in contact with some local superintendents, like (Superintendent) Ben (Villarruel) alluded to, over the last week and we’re trying to come up with what numbers make sense to communicate the story,” Connelly said.

Included in the dashboard are graphs that show cumulative positives in the county, COVID-19-related daily hospitalizations, and daily positives with a seven-day rolling average.

Not included in the dashboard, but presented to the board, was a slide that showed the number of cases in Wisconsin over time.

Connelly said there was a slight decrease when the governor’s mask mandate went into effect, but a sharp increase Sept. 1, when schools and universities opened.

“Correlation is not causation, but it is something to think about,” he said.

Connelly also presented the current infection numbers of students and staff, which, when multiplied by 20, he said can be compared to different risk levels for virus transmission presented by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

He said the current numbers place the district well above the highest risk category for transmission.

“Those numbers don’t bode well for safe, in-person, transmission-free instruction in schools presently,” Connelly said.

The metric he said was most important was the steady rise of daily hospitalizations in Brown County, which were at 104 at the time of the meeting.

“People have superstition this virus isn’t causing the harm it’s blown up to be,” Connelly said. “You really can’t argue with the number of people that’ve been admitted to the hospital.”

Dr. Ashok Rai, president and CEO of Prevea Health, spoke to the board about just that.

“Back in May, when we had our original outbreak, why we made the national news, it was the meatpacking plants, the National Guard came in,” Rai said. “We were extremely concerned with what we were seeing. We had 47 patients in Brown County hospitals. Yesterday we hit 106.”

He said it’s not as simple as having an empty bed in a hospital, but it requires equipment and staff to treat patients.

“We’re running out of people, our people are getting sick,” Rai said. “In this folder are 21 names of employees who have pending tests tonight, that I ordered myself that have RN and CNA on the back of them.”

He said the situation has gotten to the point where patients who require major surgeries will be told to wait.

“The kind we’re delaying is the woman waiting for her breast cancer surgery,” he said. “She is going to find out tomorrow there’s not a bed for her to recover in.”

With cold temperatures, slick roads and heart attacks from snow shoveling on the horizon, not to mention hunters climbing trees and influenza looming, Rai said the system locally is already stretched thin and it will get worse.

“We don’t have enough room, we just don’t have enough room right now, and neither does Appleton,” he said. “So we would be going to Milwaukee or Madison with our traumas if we were to stabilize them.”

On a more local level, Debbie Armbruster, City of De Pere health director, said September was not good for community infection.

“In the City of De Pere, we have increased 500 percent in the number of active COVID cases,” Armbruster said. “With that, of course, comes contact tracing which we have hired extra people for, but we can’t keep up. The State of Wisconsin has hired 200 extra contact tracers and they can’t keep up.”

As of Monday, she said the city had a total of 839 cases, with 335 active ones, in a population less than 25,000.

“A very large percentage of our cases we find have been at large gatherings: weddings, funerals, parties, school activities,” Armbruster said. “It’s hard for us to get people to understand we really shouldn’t continue those things, not right now anyway.”

She said the area won’t see a decline in hospitalizations for at least a week, and that’s if things quickly change for the better.

Armrbuster said people need to wash their hands for 20 seconds, wear face coverings in public, avoid large gatherings, social distance and quarantine if they have an active case.

“We know the strategies, now everyone needs to take personal responsibility in using these strategies,” she said. “Not just for yourself, or your family, but for your whole community, so we can get this pandemic under control, if you will.”

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