MADISON, Wis. (AP) - While the state’s second-largest school district remained closed to in-person learning for most of the school year, a large number of districts across the state maintained in-person learning since September, with some only closing for one or two weeks due to COVID-19-related staffing shortages.
The districts outlined a number of reasons why they opted to maintain in-person learning, with the lack of access to broadband internet needed to support online learning at the forefront. Some areas also lack cellphone coverage, so not even cellphone hotspots are an option.
"The real issue is the infrastructure is not there," Unity School District Superintendent Brandon Robinson said.
When his district had to shut down in-person learning for two weeks in the fall due to a staffing shortage, students and families would sit in the parking lot to access the school’s Wi-Fi to complete classwork, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.
The Markesan School District, located in rural Green Lake County, has a student population of roughly 800 and has been open since September, but not without challenges, said Jason Breaker, interim district administrator and elementary principal. The district’s former superintendent, Duane Bark, died of COVID-19 last year.
"We had a number of close contacts and quarantines so we had to shut down at the end of September for a week," he said. "We rethought some of our practices and used that time with our staff to plan out a better way to teach in person for our students."
Among those changes were an increased focus on social distancing, stricter mask protocols and more frequent cleaning in school buildings. Since that shutdown, the district hadn’t missed a day due to COVID-19.
Breaker said there have been 60 to 70 positive cases connected to the district since the school year began.
Unity School District in northwestern Wisconsin made the decision to remain open and continue with extracurricular activities at the beginning of the year in concert with a number of other districts in rural Polk County.
"Certainly, things look different," Robinson said. "There’s been a lot of streaming events because we have to limit the number of people in person at our events, but we were very excited to be able to offer a fall sports season."
The district, with a student population of roughly 1,000, took what Robinson called a "pause" in November after COVID-19 cases climbed significantly across the state, also due to a staffing shortage.
"One of the limiting factors in a small town or rural community is the shortage of available substitute teachers and support staff. We don’t have a large population to draw from for these positions," Robinson said. "It wasn’t uncommon for a high school teacher to walk down and cover an elementary classroom for a period of time."
But around Thanksgiving, the district had to shut down for a couple weeks when a quarter of the district staff was either quarantined or COVID-19 positive. Since then, the district has increased social distancing and other mitigation efforts as well as its contact tracing ability.
The school districts in Polk County have also banded together to support each other through the COVID crisis. Luck School District, which neighbors Unity, recently had to quarantine its entire food service staff.
"Our food service team provided lunches to their students for that week," Robinson said. "That serves as a testament to small-town schools. We help each other out."