Reopening Information

Thank you for your continued collaboration, patience and support over the past year as we have navigated the COVID-19 global health pandemic, and worked to ensure the safety of our students, staff and families. During this time, we have continued to monitor COVID-19 metrics and receive guidance from public health experts. Recently, they have advised us conditions are favorable for us to move forward with the next phase of our reopening plan.

(For a review of how we have made decisions around reopening and an update on the local public health metrics we are now tracking, please see the section "How we made decisions around reopening" below. You can find a detailed history of the metrics we have relied on in the first question in that section and in this timeline.)

Again, we thank you for your continued support and partnership during these unprecedented times.

How we made decisions around reopening

  • Our reopening readiness thresholds over time

    Where we have been

    Since Wisconsin schools closed in March of 2020, we have gauged our community's and our district's readiness to safely reopen schools using a number of factors taken together. Thresholds of Dane County positive COVID-19 cases have been a consideration

    In August of 2020, Public Health Madison & Dane County (PHMDC) published target thresholds for school districts to consider when making decisions around reopening for different grade levels, based on the best information they had at the time, which included guidance from Forward Dane, Wisconsin Department of Health Services, Harvard Global Health Institute and the Minnesota Department of Public Health, among other organizations.

    For grades K–2 to reopen, PHMDC suggested the 14-day average of new cases per day in Dane County, sustained for 4 consecutive weeks, should be 54 or fewer. For grades 3–5, PHMDC recommended an average of 39 or fewer cases; while for grades 6–12, an average of 19 or fewer cases was the suggested threshold.

    We discussed these thresholds with our health advisors, who helped us frame and interpret them from week to week, along with other indicators. Their guidance has been invaluable, including their periodic reminders of the fact that health officials, throughout the pandemic, have shifted course at times, an understandable and expected fact given this is a novel Coronavirus. Scientists are learning more each day. As their knowledge expands, their guidance evolves.

    In December of 2020, based on new information, PHMDC decided to eliminate their thresholds. This was seen as a logical change from the perspective of our health advisors, who reminded us there is no magic number whereby a school would be guaranteed safe or unsafe to reopen. However, at this time, PHMDC recommended school districts adopt their own thresholds, and they suggested looking to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) guidance as a compass, which we did.

    Since that time, the CDC has released new guidance, upending those numbers once again. We have continued to report out on the previously published thresholds in the interest of maintaining transparency, while attempting to be clear our district has never relied on these metrics as "go" or "no go" numbers. We have always relied on a wider body of evidence and information, in consultation with our health advisory panel, to make decisions.

    Where are we now?

    Our health advisory panel is supportive of us removing thresholds from our decision-making process, citing their arbitrary nature and unscientific basis. However, we understand the continued desire to somehow quantify what high, medium and low transmission might be. We contend these thresholds attempted to serve this purpose.

    As we move forward in our measuring and reporting, we expect there to be more shifts. Even the new CDC bands are being questioned, in part by the ABC Science Collaborative, which MMSD joined in March of 2021. The consortium pairs scientists and physicians with school and community leaders to help understand the most current and relevant information about COVID-19. They will continue to help us make informed decisions about returning to school using data from our own communities.

    In mid-March, we transitioned from our previous benchmarks described above to tracking four COVID community indicators, taken directly from PHMDC's Weekly Data Snapshot. They include:

    • Two-week average daily case count and trend (previously reported)
    • Two-week average daily percent positivity (previously reported)
    • Percent with at least once vaccine dose (newly reported)
    • Percent fully vaccinated (newly reported)

    We have outlined our decision-making process in this timeline.

    For a review of how we tracked our readiness efforts prior to phasing students and staff back in, you can view the archived slideshow here.

  • To determine whether our buildings are ready to safely bring back students and staff and that we have the right protocols in place, we continually assess readiness indicators, such as:

    • effective self-reporting systems for staff and students

    • safe triaging of symptomatic and infected individuals

    • safe and efficient processes for closing and quarantining classrooms, programs, or schools

    • maximized air handling capabilities and air filtration

    • sufficient face coverings and appropriate PPE inventory

    • student and staff lessons and training around COVID-19 prevention

    A variety of tools help us track our readiness, including internal guidance documents such as the current iteration of our Reopening Schools Guidance as well as tools like the Wisconsin Department of Health Services' Reopening School Buildings Risk Assessment Tool and Public Health Madison & Dane County's K-2 School safety requirements.

  • Between May and October 2020, we called on families and students to give us a sense of their instructional preferences in this environment. Our families have offered input on their intentions and preferences for their children throughout summer and fall 2020 through numerous avenues:

    • May 2020 virtual learning surveys given to families, staff and students (see results)

    • July 2020 family intentions survey (see results)

    • September 2020 Virtual Learning Feedback report (read report)

    • August-October 2020 online enrollment preferences for virtual, in-person, or hybrid

    • Analysis of enrollment for the 2020-21 school year (read report)

    • Focus groups with students, staff, Madison Teachers Inc. representatives, and families.

    • From December 9 to December 20, 2020, MMSD surveyed staff, families, and students about their intentions and abilities related to returning when MMSD reopens schools in person (read report).

  • To safely reopen schools and keep them open, we need to know how many employees will be able to return to in-person learning. Staff shortages could occur depending on the accommodations needed for staff at high risk of severe illness. We have identified we need 95% of our instructional staff for hybrid or in-person learning. Throughout this process, we have worked closely with Madison Teachers Inc., consulting them as members of our Reopening Metrics Team. We also rely on regular polling of staff to gauge the number of staff who will be available to return to the workplace once it is safe to reopen MMSD facilities.

    We also have important education and training around COVID-19 prevention as well as race and equity and instructional delivery, which we need to have staff complete before returning to school.

This committee monitors data, consults with health experts, reviews guidance from local and national health organizations, studies strategies and lessons learned from other school districts across the country, and meets weekly to develop and refine recommendations for the superintendent and the school board on when and whether to reopen schools and in what form.

Expert advisory panel

We are grateful for regular and ad hoc consultations with principal leaders, MTI and local health experts representing multiple organizations. When we meet, we present our best thinking and approach to date, and they provide important feedback.

Dr. Angie Hicks, Dr. Anu Ebbe and Dr. Brad Kose make up our Advisory Principal Panel. MTI President Andy Waity and MTI Executive Director Ed Sadlowski also serve as valuable consultants.

Our advisory panel is made up of health experts from Public Health Madison & Dane County, UW Madison, UW-Health, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, and UW-Madison including epidemiologists, infection preventionists, infection disease specialists, pediatricians, nurse consultants, professors, and more.

Input from focus groups and collaboration

We also rely on regular collaboration with our chiefs of secondary schools and chiefs of elementary schools as well members of our community through focus groups representing students, families, and staff, including Madison Teachers Inc. and Madison School & Community Recreation (MSCR).

Brief update on vaccines, testing and board policies

Testing

We have a team working closely with local health experts who are leading local COVID-19 testing efforts, to continue developing our own internal testing capacity. We are working with a rapid antigen test called BinaxNOW, which uses a nasal swab and is able to give COVID-19 results in only 15 minutes.

We currently have one site, Mendota MSCR Cares, participating in a voluntary 8-week research study pilot being conducted by the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. Researchers are hoping to learn more about the feasibility of using twice -asymptomatic testing as a way of keeping programs open more consistently. We hope to be able to expand this pilot to a few additional schools in the coming weeks.

We are also in the process of developing our capacity to use BinaxNOW tests for symptomatic testing at all MMSD schools. Our goal is to be able to offer rapid antigen testing for any in-person student or staff member who develops symptoms while at school. We expect this to begin in the next few weeks. At the moment, our supply of tests is finite so it is difficult for us to anticipate exactly how long this will be available. We will continue to work with our health experts to consider all options.

Vaccines

We have been connecting our staff to multiple vaccine opportunities and we believe that all staff interested in being vaccinated have been connected to an opportunity to do so. You can find our latest update on vaccine availability here.

The Department of Health Services announced a weekly newsletter the public can sign up for to get direct information about the COVID-19 response and vaccine rollout. Registration is now open, and archived copies of the weekly newsletter will also be available.

New board policies

On December 14, 2020, Public Health Madison & Dane County released new requirements and recommendations for school districts preparing to reopen. To satisfy new requirements, MMSD's Board of Education introduced new policies for hygiene, protective measures and cleaning and adopted them on January 25.

FAQ

  • MMSD's Reopening Metrics team monitors data, consults with health experts, reviews guidance from local and national health organizations, studies strategies and lessons learned from other school districts across the country, and meets weekly to develop and refine recommendations for the superintendent and the school board on when and whether to reopen schools and in what form.

    Members include:

    Jay Affeldt, Executive Director of Student and Staff Supports

    Andrew Statz, Executive Director of Accountability

    Karen Kepler, Chief of School Operations

    Sally Zirbel-Donisch, Assistant Director of Health Services

    Deirdre Hargrove-Krieghoff, Chief of Human Resources

    Richard McGregory, Chief of Staff

    Chad Wiese, Director of Building and Technical Services 

    Oriana Eversole, Director of Research, Accountability & Data Use

    Chris Harrison, Qualitative Analyst

    Liz Merfeld, Public Information Officer

    This team relies on regular collaboration with our chiefs of secondary schools and chiefs of elementary schools as well members of our community through focus groups representing students, families, and staff, including Madison Teachers Inc. and Madison School & Community Recreation (MSCR).

  • Our goal is to be as transparent as possible through this process and provide as much notice as possible on decisions about reopening. At minimum, we aim to provide a two-week notice. We know that any decision put into place is at risk of being modified or reversed based on rapidly changing conditions, which is why any decision that we make will also prioritize the flexibility of our model.

  • Through collaborative discussions, we have received a wealth of critical information from our expert partners. From the efficacy of various types of masks to the benefits and challenges of various cohort models and weekly schedules, our experts are able to help us weigh all the options, compare and contrast with other districts, and understand the science behind the most effective approaches. More recently, our partners are working closely with us to develop surveillance testing and immediate symptom screen testing for staff and students

  • As the majority of students and staff have been engaged in virtual learning from home throughout the 2020-21 school year, various students and staff have been present in MMSD buildings, including:

    • students and staff taking part in childcare through MSCR Cares or through private providers operating in our schools
    • students and staff engaging in special education programming
    • custodial staff, food service workers, nurses, nurse assistants, and other essential staff
    • teachers choosing to teach virtually from their classrooms
    • administrators and others
    This has given us an opportunity to develop and refine our protocols around mask wearing, social distancing, cleaning, daily symptom screening, contact tracing when there is a positive COVID-19 case, temporary closures, and communication to families and staff.

    We feel it is important for our community to be aware of the impact the spread of Coronavirus in Madison has on our schools. Our schools have strong mitigation strategies in place, and they have been extremely successful in acting quickly to prevent spread. We implore everyone to take precautions at home and in the public and to monitor your symptoms, never entering MMSD buildings if you are ill. We have published a Public Case Count, which reports on the number of positive COVID-19 cases that have been reported in our buildings, beginning September 8, 2020. We update this weekly on Wednesdays.

  • There are so many variables that affect these critical decisions, and every school district will weigh the variables and data differently. The scale of our district, and our proximity to the urban center make our context much different than those in satellite or rural communities. We are also hoping to provide consistency for our students, families, and staff, in prioritizing the health and safety of our students and staff, and would like to avoid the stress of repeated opening and closing, and related shifts from in person to virtual and back, in response to exposures.

  • As the majority of students and staff have been engaged in virtual learning from home throughout the 2020-21 school year, various students and staff have been present in MMSD buildings, including:

    • students and staff taking part in childcare through MSCR Cares or through private providers operating in our schools

    • students and staff engaging in special education programming

    • custodial staff, food service workers, nurses, nurse assistants, and other essential staff

    • teachers choosing to teach virtually from their classrooms

    • administrators and others

    This has given us an opportunity to develop and refine our protocols around mask wearing, social distancing, cleaning, daily symptom screening, contact tracing when there is a positive COVID-19 case, temporary closures, and communication to families and staff.

  • We feel it is important for our community to be aware of the impact the spread of Coronavirus in Madison has on our schools. Our schools have strong mitigation strategies in place, and they have been extremely successful in acting quickly to prevent spread. We implore everyone to take precautions at home and in the public and to monitor your symptoms, never entering MMSD buildings if you are ill. We have published a public case count webpage, which reports on the number of positive COVID-19 cases that have been reported in our buildings, beginning September 8, 2020. We update this weekly on Wednesdays.

  • MMSD has been consulting with local health officials and scientists on the new COVID-19 variant.

    As of now, there is limited information on the variant, but preliminary data suggests it does spread more easily to children and adults.

    • The data also suggests it behaves similarly to the original variant in terms of not impacting younger people as seriously as it does older individuals.