Solon Springs sets return to school date following COVID-19 outbreak

An outbreak of COVID-19 cases caused the district to transition to a week of online classes.

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The Solon Springs School Board set a Tuesday, Nov. 9, return to school date for students in the district during a special board meeting Sunday, Nov. 7. Sports practices were allowed to resume a day earlier to prevent the girls basketball team from missing a game due to WIAA guidelines.

“Because if they don’t have that practice, then they’d have to go out an additional week before they’d have their first game,” said District Administrator Frank Helquist.

The district put the brakes on in-person classes Oct. 29 and all Halloween activities were canceled due to a COVID-19 outbreak. Students spent four days last week in online classes. Wednesday, Nov. 3, was a scheduled inservice day.

Only five students had active COVID-19 cases two weeks prior to the shutdown. That rose to 51 active student cases by Wednesday. The majority, 36, were at the elementary school level. Seven staff members were quarantined with active cases and another seven were quarantined following close contact with a positive case.

Seven of the eight elementary classrooms were in quarantine due to a positive student or adult case in the rooms when the district made the decision, according to a letter sent to families. None of the middle or high school rooms were quarantined. While the quarantined classrooms were expecting return dates between Nov. 4-8, that was put on hold.


PREVIOUSLY: Coronavirus activity sends Solon Springs learning online

“There were a lot of people not here,” Helquist told the board, and there was a serious question of whether the school had sufficient staff at the elementary school level.

Numbers of new positive cases dropped dramatically, he said, in the two days before Sunday’s meeting: only three had been reported, two students and one staff member.

Helquist said an average of 50 people get tested for the virus daily at the district’s COVID-19 testing site, which is funded through a grant.

“It’s been so beneficial for us,” he said in a Thursday, Nov. 4, telephone interview. “What it has allowed us to do is probably identify students who have it, not even have symptoms. And so I think the number of students that we have identified is probably pretty accurate.”

The board did not make any changes to its current COVID-19 protocol at the meeting. Masks will remain optional for all students and staff; quarantine procedures will remain in place. Board members said they wanted to wait for survey feedback from staff and families about mask use, as well as more clarity from the county and state level on quarantine protocols, before they consider any changes to the plan.

Quarantine protocol varies from district to district in Douglas County, Helquist said.

“Essentially, it’s the wild, wild West,” he said.


Board members agreed adding flexibility to the district’s quarantine plan could prevent extended absences for both students and staff, but wanted to make sure they were following health guidelines.

Members of the public spoke prior to the meeting about mask use. Four were in favor of keeping it optional, including a mother of three who said she and her family were diagnosed with and recovered from COVID-19. A school junior who said her mother tested positive for the disease also backed keeping the mask policy as is, particularly for students engaged in vigorous activity like gym and sports.

First responder Chuck Walt, who has a background in public health, urged the board to make mask use mandatory. From a public health perspective, he said, masks make a difference in slowing the spread of the virus.

“I’ve been responding to calls weekly,” said Walt, a member of the Solon Springs Volunteer Fire Department. “There’s COVID here and I’ve been responding to kids here.”


County-wide increase

Douglas County is experiencing a surge of COVID-19 cases, according to health officer Kathy Ronchi, but it is a couple of weeks behind other areas of the state that experienced a similar surge in October.

RELATED: COVID-19 infection rates spike in Douglas County

"We have not seen a significant increase in hospitalizations or deaths, but certainly more people are sick, which puts vulnerable people at risk," Ronchi said Thursday, Nov. 4. "One infected person can spread the disease to multiple others in a very short period of time."

She said a portion of those are breakthrough cases, where someone who has been fully vaccinated gets the disease.

"We are learning immunity from the vaccine appears to be waning so boosters are highly encouraged, particularly with the rise in cases," Ronchi said.

The surge has led to a backlog. Contact tracers have not been able to reach out to all the close contacts of all the positive cases. Ronchi encouraged people who test positive for the virus to notify their close contacts of the exposure. Those who have been in close contact should quarantine until they can be tested five to seven days after exposure.

A common theme with new cases is people attending activities or working while symptomatic, assuming it's a cold or allergies. By the time they become significantly ill and get tested, Ronchi said, many people have been exposed. Most of those end up positive.

In addition, she said, "We are seeing many large family groups testing positive, which impacts schools."

Solon Springs is not the only district experiencing a rise in COVID-19 cases. The number of positive student cases in Superior doubled from 13 to 27 between the week of Oct. 16 and the week of Oct. 23, according to the district's weekly update. The number of staff who tested positive went from none the week of Oct. 16 to six the week of Oct. 23.

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Contributed / Douglas County Health Department

According to data released by the Douglas County Health Department Thursday, one teenager has been reported to be hospitalized due to COVID. Because of the increase in cases across all age groups, masking in indoor public areas is strongly recommended.

About 71% of adults 18 and older in Douglas County have received at least one dose of the vaccine, while just over half of 12- to 17-year-olds have been vaccinated.

RELATED: What to know about the COVID-19 vaccine for children age 5-11

Pediatric COVID-19 vaccination for ages 5-11 has begun at Essentia Health and should be available next week at the community vaccine clinic on the University of Wisconsin-Superior campus, Ronchi said. The public will be notified when the start date is set.

Maria Lockwood covers news in Douglas County, Wisconsin, for the Superior Telegram.
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