/ Articles / Lakeland area school districts temporarily postponed due to coronavirus concerns

Lakeland area school districts temporarily postponed due to coronavirus concerns

April 17, 2020 by Kayla Houp

As part of the state’s efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, Governor Tony Evers directed Department of Health Services Secretary-designee Andrea Palm to issue an agency order on March 13 mandating the closure of all K-12 schools statewide.

The closure affects both public and private schools and will begin Wednesday, March 18 with the anticipated reopening date of April 6, which may change subject to pending information, according to a press release.

While the Wisconsin Department of Health Services reported on Friday 11 new cases of COVID-19, raising the state’s total cases to 19, as of Sunday afternoon, the total positive COVID-19 cases reported was at 33, including one recovered.

Shortly after the mandate was issued, local school districts, including the Minocqua J1 School District, Lac du Flambeau Public School, North Lakeland Elementary School, Arbor Vitae-Woodruff Elementary School, and Lakeland Union High School have announced they will be closed effective Monday, March 16 until Monday, April 6.

Prior to the mandate, local school districts issued letters to parents and guardians outlining the district’s efforts to actively monitor the evolving situation with the coronavirus as the districts’ spring breaks came to a close.

“We have been in contact with the Vilas County Health Department and continue to receive guidance from the county, state, and federal health departments as the situation continues to develop,” a letter from North Lakeland Elementary School superintendent Brent Jelinski read.

‘Preventative vs. reactive’

The Lac du Flambeau Public School Board of Education convened on March 13 to determine the district’s steps moving forward in response to the coronavirus in regard to the Tribal Council’s recommendation for closing the school.

While the board approved a motion 3-1 to close the school effective March 16 until it reopened on March 30, the mandate issued by the DHS expanded that closure to April 6. 

“There was a meeting, an informal meeting that wasn’t a quorum and they were having discussions within the tribe, and through some of its departments, on what they plan on doing with this coronavirus,” board member Gary Smith said. “And the issue of the school came up.”

According to district superintendent Dr. Larry Ouimette, he and Minocqua J1 superintendent Dr. Jim Ellis had spoken to their respective county health departments, which recommended schools stay open, but travelers from states and countries with a high amount of reported cases self-quarantine for 14 days before returning to school.

“That’s kind of the guidance that the schools were going by,” he said. “And we would continue to be open and we would monitor.”

Smith reported the LUHS district had, at that time, planned to remain open, but closely monitoring the situation, was under the guidance of county health officials who went under the guidance of the CDC and the state.

According to Smith, there had been concerns as to what would happen if school remained in session and a positive case was confirmed.

Smith said while the elementary-aged children weren’t necessarily at high risk to COVID-19, if they were to get infected they could possibly transmit it to elderly relatives, who were at a higher risk.

There was also the concern, Smith said, that transmission could spread “very quickly, in a matter of days” if cases were confirmed in the county, leading to an overwhelming number of patients at local clinics and hospitals.

Board member Mike Zimmerman, Jr. said he  “didn’t see” the massive influx of patients happening.

“We’ve been out of school for a week, we’ve been cleaning all week, so the school is nice and clean. If we can control who comes back from spring break and keeping them out, that’s fine,” Zimmerman, Jr., said. 

Zimmerman, Jr., said he was opposed to the idea of closing, stating the school was the “safest place for the kids” if the district could control who returned from spring break.

He also asked “how willing” the tribe was to “step up and help parents out who have to stay home for two more weeks.”

“What are we going to gain by closing?” Zimmerman, Jr., asked.

“The reason for the closing will be preventative, rather than reactive to a case that’s been confirmed,” Smith said.

Smith used the example of if a staff member returning from vacation, unknowingly carrying the disease, but later developing symptoms.

“That person’s been infecting literally whoever they contact here in the school, then we are not ahead of it, we are reacting to it,” Smith said. “Then, if there is a case, we’re shut down anyways.”

Smith acknowledged that “it would be difficult to find childcare.”

Smith went on to mention the national number of cases in the United States and Wisconsin according to the CDC and Wisconsin DHS.

“Everyone predicts this number is just going to skyrocket,” Smith said. “I say we control it as best we can.”

Many won’t come’

Over the course of the board’s discussion, the board addressed the possibility that, regardless of whether or not the school closed, many parents and guardians wouldn’t send their children to school anyway, due to coronavirus concerns.

“I’ve seen a lot on Facebook, and different venues, and they’re just not going to send their kids, regardless of how far behind they get,” board member Trish Mann said.

“Most kids probably won’t even show signs, if they have it. They probably won’t get sick,” Smith said. “It’s the elderly ones that are going to get sick.”

Zimmerman, Jr., said closing the school and keeping children home “wouldn’t stop everything.”

“It’s not only looking out for the children, it’s looking out for the entire community to stop it from starting, really,” Smith said.

“It’s going to happen. Everybody’s going to get sick. They’re going to be infected with it, they might not get sick, but it’s going to get spread around no matter what we do,” Zimmerman, Jr., said. “It’s a matter of how many at one time is what the clinic’s worried about.”

“Preventative, preventative, that’s what this is about,” Smith said.

The board also weighed its options of what would happen if, after the proposed closure, an outbreak happened in the school anyway.

“It’s damned if you do, and damned if you don’t,” Mike Zimmerman, Sr. said.

“Closing would be a proactive approach,” Smith said. “Are we going to get a whole bunch, more than likely, but the plea is also coming from the clinic saying, ‘Give us some time,’” Smith said. 

“The more we can delay the spread of the virus, the better prepared they will be in a lot of different ways. So that they were asking us to help them by delaying the community spread of the virus,” Dr. Ouimette said. 

“We should formulate a plan, after this 30 days, or whatever, so we know what we’re going to do if there is a case,” Zimmerman, Sr. said.

“One other thing we could do is, perhaps during that time period, bring in teachers and come up with some ideas of how we can continue to provide education to kids, in some way,” Dr. Ouimette said.

In regard to food service, Ouimette said other districts had considered having bus drivers deliver meals along bus routes.

“Or we could make a central drop-off point,” Smith said. “The meals could be taken up there.”

As of this writing, there have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in either Vilas or Oneida County.

Kayla Houp may be reached via email at [email protected]

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