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Why school districts have different COVID-19 protocols, even if they attend same meetings

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DODGEVILLE (WKOW) -- School administrators in Dodgeville decided Wednesday to shift all classes to virtual learning. Superintendent Paul Weber cited an increase in confirmed COVID-19 cases among students and staff.

The district said in a letter to parents six staff members had tested positive; Weber told 27 News in a subsequent email there had also been cases among students, too. Dodgeville schools will remain entirely virtual through at least November 30.

"I wouldn't say this is an overreaction," said Iowa County Emergency Management Director Keith Hurlbert. "I think it's an appropriate reaction to be sure that we're not just protecting the students, we're protecting their families, their grandmothers, their grandfathers."

Hurlbert said Iowa County school district leaders meet every Wednesday with the county's emergency management and public health officials. The meetings began in April to address the universal switch to virtual learning, then continued to discuss summer learning programs.

Hurlbert said, initially, the plan was for the meetings to end once the school year started in September but district leaders wanted to keep them going as they navigate the challenge of running in-person, virtual and/or hybrid learning in their schools.

"We wanted to make sure they understood if we have to make shifts, we have to make shifts," Hurlbert said. "It's not necessarily the school's fault that happened. It may not be anybody's fault. This virus is nasty contagious."

On Tuesday, the Pecatonica Area School District announced it was moving its high school and middle schools to virtual learning for two weeks after a person tested positive for COVID-19. The district has students in Iowa, Dane, Green and Lafayette counties.

Superintendent Jill Underly said even with a single positive test, the district will err on the side of caution and close a building if the person who tested positive had close contact with a number of students and staff.

"The virus is a very real thing," Underly said. "Our administration firmly believes that so the health and welfare of our students and staff is our biggest priority."

Underly said if, through contact tracing, a single positive case did not have exposure to others, the building would stay open. She added the district moved to virtual learning earlier in the year for nearly two weeks. It was because the person who tested positive had contact with multiple staff members, something Underly said the district was very sensitive about.

"Generally, we find (contact tracing) implicates a number of staff members and, at this time, finding substitutes for staff teachers, as well as substitutes for custodial or food service, it's nearly impossible," Underly said.

Underly said the district's usual reserve pool of substitute teachers is largely retired educators. With those individuals naturally likely to be more elderly, Underly said many have opted out of teaching this fall over concerns they're more likely to develop a severe case of COVID-19 if infected.

Hurlbert said while the districts all receive the same information and swap strategies and weekly meetings, they still must craft policies unique to their own communities and buildings. He added Iowa County leaders would not want a one-size-fits-all approach to deciding when a district needs to suspend in-person learning.

"It's not a dictatorship," Hurlbert said. "It's a working relationship we have with the schools and giving them the information they need to make those decisions for themselves."

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A. J. Bayatpour

Reporter, WKOW 27

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