Higher risk of Shawano schools starting virtually

Committee looks at adjusting models
Lee Pulaski
City Editor

The increase in coronavirus cases in recent weeks could push Shawano School District into starting out with virtual learning instead of the hybrid model touted for weeks, district officials announced Thursday.

The news came during the first meeting of a new re-entry committee looking at ways to adjust when it’s appropriate to have students in school more frequently or less. Superintendent Randi Anderson showed committee members a county map with census tract data that showed several sectors of the district in a high risk area for contracting the virus.

The committee was formed to guide Anderson as she determined which education model would be safest to allow for student education while ensuring community health. School board member Chuck Dallas, who is chairing the committee, pointed out that the coronavirus has turned into a sensitive and political issue that has polarized people.

“We want you to be our eyes and ears out there and feed information to Randi,” Dallas said, noting that the committee has representation from two health organizations — ThedaCare and Prevea — along with other health officials. “Tell us what is going on in your area so we can make an informed decision with the kids.”

Anderson noted that the Wisconsin Department of Health Services has not released any updated guidance for districts on when to shift from one education model to another but is expecting the information to come next week. However, she fears it won’t take much to impact the school district’s ability to educate.

“One of the biggest concerns we have is, once (coronavirus) gets into our system, we’re done,” Anderson said.

The district already has 300 students signed up to receive total online learning for the fall semester, according to Anderson, but it could easily extend to the more than 2,000 students expected to be in school come September.

As of Wednesday, Shawano County had 210 positive cases recorded, with zero deaths and 16 incidents where people had to be hospitalized. However, medical professionals on the committee pointed out that, due to limited testing ability, those numbers are probably higher.

Shannon Daun, a family medicine physician at Menominee Tribal Clinic, said she and her colleagues have been seeing a “constant trickle” of cases since the pandemic was declared in March.

“The testing availability is a large issue right now, so the numbers are probably a lot worse than what we know of,” Daun said. “People who are only mildly ill will not necessarily be tested because of the limited availability.”

Dr. Mindy Frimodig with ThedaCare noted that the area is running low on rapid testing kits and will likely have to turn to the send-out tests, which take days to receive the results.

Prevea has been a leader in coronavirus testing in Shawano County, with Dr. Yu Chin Fang pointing out that 30 patients per day come to the Shawano clinic, and it’s not just locals who seek the tests.

“Some people come from as far as Green Bay to test because all of the sites are full there,” Fang said. “We are testing more people with milder symptoms than ThedaCare is.”

Vicki Dantoin, health officer for the Shawano-Menominee Counties Health Department, reported that her office has received reports of 60 new cases in recent weeks.

Most on the committee want to see the schools open five days a week, regardless of the statistics. Jess Huntington, a Shawano pharmacist, noted that 92% of Wisconsin’s counties are currently designated high risk and expressed concern about what would happen if those districts had to go to all virtual learning.

“I don’t see not reopening at least three or four days a week to be safe,” Huntington said. “I think this data is a little skewed. I feel it is your duty to reopen because if you think of all the people working at Charlie’s County Market, Walgreens, Walmart. You have health care providers in the hospital. If we all shut down, where would this world go?”

Fang said the ultimate solution to get the schools open five days a week lies with the community, which she believes is not doing enough to stem the coronavirus spread.

“I am extremely disappointed with how this community hasn’t come together, do the decent thing and masking so we can get our children back to school,” Fang said.

Anderson recommended the committee strongly discourage people from attending the Shawano County Fair, which boasts tens of thousands people attending over the six-day run.

“Community, you need to mask. You need to social distance. You need to cancel your county fair,” Anderson said. “We can’t have 68,000 people coming into this city and expect us to keep our buildings open.”

One suggestion made was to add a fourth model of education in between the hybrid learning and virtual learning models. Anderson noted it might be possible for that model to have a majority of learning online but still have some in-person interaction between students and teachers. She said it might be possible for middle and high school students to be in school one day per week instead of the two or three in the hybrid model, and elementary students could come to school two or three days instead of the full five in the hybrid model.

Another suggestion was to try and find more accurate data to help the district determine how many positive cases can be found within its boundaries. School board member Chris Gull said he would consult with other school districts to get their local stats and send the information to the committee members.