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De Pere releases criteria for return to school

By Rich Palzewic
Staff Writer

DE PERE – The De Pere school district now has a set of criteria for a return to in-person schooling.

At its Monday, Oct. 19, virtual meeting, the district’s plan to return to school was discussed with the school board and community members in a two-hour meeting.

About a dozen community members spoke, with a majority saying the return to school criteria is too strict and students should be back in school.

No formal vote was taken on the plan, but metrics will be reviewed once per week.

The district began the year with a blended approach, but moved to all virtual instruction Sept. 28 due to COVID-19 community spread.

At that time, an Oct. 12 return date was targeted for a return to blended learning.

In a letter to district parents Oct. 6, the district announced it would extend the virtual instruction until at least Nov. 6.

“We’d like to have our students back to face-to-face learning Nov. 6, but the school board will meet again Nov. 2 to make a decision using the reopening criteria,” said Superintendent Ben Villarreal. “Everybody knows in-person, face-to-face instruction is what’s best for students, but we need it to be safe.”

The district will use two main criteria in deciding when students will return to school.

The number of new cases per 100,000 residents and the percentage of positive tests over 14 days in Brown County.

Other criteria such as the percentage of hospital and ICU beds occupied in Northeast Wisconsin will also be considered.

For all students to be in the classroom five days per week, the number of new cases per 100,000 people in Brown County has to be below 20 for two consecutive weeks and the positivity rate must dip below 5 percent.

“Other districts have been working with us on the same criteria,” Villarreal said. “We recently had a meeting with six school districts in Brown County, and we’re sharing information. There is a desire to use a common source of data to stay consistent. We’re using the metrics similar to what the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) is recommending. There is no uniformity across the state.”

A transition to blended instruction could happen when cases are between 20 and 50 per 100,000 Brown County residents for two consecutive weeks and the positivity rate is between 5 and 8 percent.

If the numbers fall into those scenarios, other criteria could be used to decide if a blended approach is doable.

Villarreal said he could see the CDC changing its guidelines when more information is known.

“There is hope,” he said. “We will be responsive to what is communicated with us from the CDC.”

Staff availability because of positive cases and quarantining is also a factor.

“As mentioned at previous meetings, all these numbers are great, but one of the fundamental baselines to reopening is our staff availability,” said David Youngquist, board president. “Regardless of the trends, in late September, our district was struggling with staff.”

Villarreal confirmed that was true.

“We’ve hired 14 full-time substitute teachers,” he said. “We’ve done everything we can to secure subs, but until the time comes when we know more of what’s going on, it’s hard to predict if we have enough – it’s a day-to-day struggle.”

As of Oct. 19, Brown County had 1,030 new positive cases per 100,000 residents in the last 14 days, while the positivity rate over that same time was 20.2 percent.

Despite the daunting numbers, Joseph Connelly, data and assessment specialist for the district, said a return to school soon is attainable.

“I don’t think reaching acceptable numbers is as far off into the future as people think,” he said. “As a community, we’re going to have to tighten some stuff up if we want to get those numbers back down, but I do think the level of prevalence of the disease within the community that would allow us to reopen is attainable.”

Connelly said on Sept. 1, before the CDC guidelines were released, something changed in Wisconsin that caused a spike.

“That was in or around the time school began,” he said. “We can see the spike – it’s staring us in the face. Can kids go to school safely right now? The vast majority of kids could, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for the community. It also might depend on what we have in hand in December or January, like a vaccine. That will be played out in the numbers.”

Connelly said the recent spike in new cases has hit a plateau.

“If we can get this thing in check as quickly as it got away from us, you’re looking at the second or third week in December,” he said. “If we can be as good now as a community as we were bad on the front side, we’ll be back in a spot where we’re talking about opening up schools again. Many factors could get us back into a good spot or extend it out longer.”

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