With students in some Wisconsin school districts and many private schools headed back to school, the state Department of Health Services (DHS) today released new, detailed guidance for schools on how to prevent and handle COVID-19 outbreaks in schools.
The guidance is not mandatory or exhaustive but rather contains a set of recommendations or “best practices” to inform local decisions to be made by school authorities and local health departments. It includes guidance on moving between different learning environments during an outbreak as well as considerations for school administrators and local public health officials around temporarily halting in-person instruction in an individual classroom or student cohort, in an individual school or across an entire district.
The 36-page document is now posted online and is officially called: Guidelines for the Prevention, Investigation, and Control of COVID-19 Outbreaks in K-12 Schools in Wisconsin.
These recommendations were developed with with input from multiple sources, including the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI), review of available literature, and guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Today’s guidance includes recommendations in a number of areas including:
- physical distancing,
- wearing face coverings,
- absence policies,
- information on how to identify cases and close contact among students,
- information on when to exclude students from in-person instruction,
- how to best isolate and quarantine,
- effective cleaning and disinfecting practices, and
- template letters for schools to use in the situation of confirmed cases or close contact.
In releasing the new guidance, the DHS provided the following background information about the guidance and why it was developed:
“We know the 2020-2021 school year during the COVID-19 pandemic brings a unique set of challenges to Wisconsin school districts and local and tribal health departments. Ensuring the safety of Wisconsin students is key to furthering their education.
“Wisconsin has 421 different public school districts, 230 charter schools, and 789 private and parochial school, each with unique needs and considerations.
“Recognizing that schools that resume in-person instruction will likely experience outbreaks of COVID-19, our goal was to create a consistent but flexible approach to responding to outbreaks so our schools and local health departments had the tools and information they need to respond.
“The reality of the current status of the virus in Wisconsin is that we will see outbreaks in schools. The fall semester is going to be a difficult one. It is important for us all to be supporting our schools and local health departments and allowing them to make the best decisions possible for their parents, kids, teachers, and community. We want local and tribal health departments to be prepared so that outbreaks can be addressed quickly and the students, school staff, and entire community can be as safe and healthy as possible.”
The guidance document itself notes:
“Measures can be taken to identify COVID-19 outbreaks early by recognizing typical symptoms of illness, and can be controlled by promptly implementing aggressive infection prevention and control measures to prevent environmental or person-to-person transmission. When appropriate prevention and control measures are not implemented immediately, outbreaks can continue to cause illnesses and spread throughout a school and to close contacts of those who are ill, leading to hospitalization in some cases and occasionally to death in the most severe cases.“
“These recommendations are not exhaustive. Implementation of these strategies and measures may not be appropriate or feasible in all situations. School-level assessment should be made by local health departments in consultation with school administration, DPI, and epidemiologists at DHS. Intervention and control measures should be based on the most recent guidance available from local, state, and federal public health and regulatory authorities.”
You can find this new guidance on outbreaks in schools and additional school-focused health information on the DHS website on the COVID-19: Schools and Child Care webpage. Additional guidance on school reopening and specific infection prevention recommendations is available on the CDC website.