By Heather Graves
SEYMOUR – A recent COVID-19 outbreak at Black Creek Elementary Middle School led to an entire classroom being quarantined.
Superintendent Laurie Asher said it has weighed heavily on her.
“It is very stressful,” a choked up Asher said at the Tuesday, Sept. 28, Seymour School Board meeting. “It is very important to keep all of our kids safe. That is all I want to do.”
As multiple students in the third-grade classroom became infected, Asher said she found herself unable to prevent things from getting worse.
She said decisions made by the board over the summer – optional masks, elimination of social distancing requirements in classrooms and less frequent disinfecting – made her feel like her hands were tied.
“At Black Creek, I knew when we were at that point, and I knew it was coming in the next two weeks, and I couldn’t stop it,” she said. “And that is what I don’t want to happen again.”
In the class of 19 students, over the span of two-and-a-half weeks, Asher said five students tested positive for COVID-19.
She said the cases were epi-linked – meaning positive cases are connected through some common source, such as a person or place.
In this case, Asher said it was the third-grade classroom at Black Creek.
Through intervention from the Outagamie County Public Health Department, she said the decision was made to quarantine the classroom for 10 days from the most recent exposure to a positive case.
The classroom learned virtually during that time.
All students returned to in-person learning Monday, Sept. 27.
“Luckily, all of our kids and their families from that situation are OK, but they could not have been,” Asher said. “We have to be good stewards for our kids and our families. We have to. And we can’t just turn our eyes when we know there are four positive cases in a classroom. I can’t do that again.”
She said there were no increased mitigation strategies and the virus continued to spread through the classroom until the decision was made to quarantine.
“It was really hard, but we didn’t have a choice,” she said. “We didn’t increase any mitigation strategies in that classroom. We just let it keep going, and all of a sudden it was too much and we had to quarantine to stop it. I didn’t increase any of them, because I didn’t feel like I had that authority because of the (board’s decision). That is what I’d like guidance from the board on. What are you comfortable with as far as mitigation strategies (in the event of an outbreak) in the future?”
Asher said if masks had been required after the second epi-linked case was detected, she believes things would have turned out differently.
“I think, if we would have masked when we knew there was a second epi-link or the third epi-link, we wouldn’t have had the fourth and the fifth,” she said. “So, I think, we could have stopped it at a week. I’m not saying those kids wouldn’t have gotten (COVID), they might have gotten it outside of school, but they wouldn’t have gotten it in our school, and that is what we want to stop.”
Asher looked to the board for direction if this situation were to happen again.
“I don’t want to make a decision you (the board) aren’t comfortable with,” she said. “But, I don’t want what happened at Black Creek to happen again.”
Board member Jill Karweick said the board should provide guidance to make those decisions when they are needed.
“I think we need to trust our administration to be able to do this,” Karweick said. “I would like to see us, as a board, come up with something that we would not have to have a special board meeting to make a decision that time is of the essence and we give you (Asher) some guidance to accomplish that.”
The board passed a motion to give Asher authority to make temporary mitigation changes in the event of future epi-link outbreak situations, but just for the students in close contact of the epi-linked cases.
Those changes would then be discussed with the board at a future date.
Asher said increased mitigation strategies are more than just masking, but include social distancing, increased handwashing and sanitation, classroom-based lunches, cohorts, hybrid approaches, anything to help stop the spread.
“I want to increase mitigation – whatever that looks like,” she said. “Masking could be one of them, but it isn’t the only one. I don’t think we can, when it gets to that level, say one thing is going to change it. That is why there are recommendations for all kinds of mitigation strategies.”
Asher said she is concerned about the current numbers at the middle school level because they are higher than any other grade level.
However, at this point none are epi-linked cases, which doesn’t suggest school-building spread, she said.
Asher said if an entire building were to have epi-linked cases that would possibly require masking or closure, that discussion would need to come to the board.
The district has also felt the effect COVID-19 has placed on staffing.
“This is starting to become a big concern,” Asher said.
She said every building, every day has one to two positions that can’t be filled.
Asher said one building has been at the tipping point for two or three days.
“One of our buildings has been really short-staffed to the point that I had a discussion with the administrator about ‘Can we continue this?’” she said. “One day there were five positions we could not fill. The staff is doing a wonderful job. The teachers are covering. The aides are covering. Everyone is covering the best they can, but I don’t think we can sustain that long term.”
Asher said the administration will continue to monitor the situation and update the board if the problem worsens.
New this year has been the option of antigen testing for COVID-19 at school.
“We have tested 25 staff members,” Asher said. “We have tested 122 students. It is an antigen test, so, if they are negative they can go back into teaching or they can go back to school.”
Of the 147 individuals tested, Asher said there have been three positive cases – one staff member and two students.
“We have a lot of general illness right now, but as far as COVID, of the ones we’ve tested, only three have turned out positive,” she said. “So, that is good, but it is another nice tool we have to give families and staff.”