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Health departments take advisory role for school opening plans

Conlon: ‘We have many concerns, but we need to realize we need our kids to learn’

July 03, 2020 by Brian Jopek

As the 2020-21 school year approaches and COVID-19 still very much in the eyes of health officials and others, something not to be taken lightly, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction released its COVID-19 pandemic guidance in late June. 

“Guidance” is a key word; individual school districts, such as those in the Lakeland area, are crafting plans for the start of the school year based on some of that DPI guidance along with that of the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention and local health departments. 

Linda Conlon, the director of the Oneida County health office, acknowledges she will have a significant say in how those district plans are put together.

“I’m really going to look at that DPI guidance,” she said. “One of the things I’ve learned is that the DPI has put in some options for schools — here’s an option, here’s an option, here’s an option. Really, the district administrators and the nurses of those schools know their school  best and they know their community the best.”

Conlon also said she and her staff fully realize kids learn better in school. 

“We get that,” she said. “Especially the younger kids. But, there are going to be some kids that are going to have health issues who shouldn’t be in a school, that their parents want to home school.”

Conlon said she thinks it’s important a school district has a plan to address “all kinds of scenarios” related to something like the current COVID-19 situation. 

“You know, bringing the kids back to school, doing partial learning with kids that need to learn from home,” she said. “I think it’s important the schools have those options and to work with their parents and their school board and their administrator to figure out ‘What are those best options for our school?’”

Conlon said that doesn’t mean the different school districts will all be doing things the same way as they find their way to what works. 

“There’s no intention on the health department side to say ‘This is how you must do it,’” she said. “Because just like our community was not having a high number of COVID-19 cases, our schools are not the same. So, our plan is to work with all the schools individually on their plans.”

That said, Conlon does have some thoughts on what she’d share. 

“Would I still recommend social distancing in the fall if they can do it? Sure,” she said. “If it’s not a possibility, what’s the next best thing?”

The other important piece to that would be, Conlon said, plans a district has if there were to be an outbreak of COVID-19 there. 

“What is the plan to address that in the school system?” she said. “Not to be off for six months at a time but what is the plan in a short term for us (health department staff) to address. There may be a situation that’s happening in that  specific area.”

Conlon’s concerns are many, among them the chances of those 19 years of age and younger not being anywhere near as impacted but possibly carrying the virus to older people or COVID-19 mutating to the point where it does begin to effect children on a broader scale. 

“We have many concerns,” she said. “But we also need to realize that we need our kids to learn and we need to protect our vulnerable population.”

Brian Jopek may be reached via email at [email protected]

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