The Whitefish Bay School District has a unique approach to how it will handle running the school year during the COVID-19 pandemic.
They have created a Health Advisory Committee to guide them in recommending what steps the district should implement as they navigate the various challenges of teaching during the pandemic.
Committee facilitator Gita Sinha says it all began in early August when the district, having decided to offer both an all virtual and hybrid of virtual and in-person classroom teaching for students this fall, reached out to members of their community who have medical backgrounds.
“There was an expression of interest from our school board to a few of us saying we would be interested in getting more health expertise to guide our reopening planning,” says Sinha.
What was formed is a group of 26 people who work in the medical field and cover a wide range of areas. After meeting several times, their report was submitted to the district. It was also shared with community members, the North Shore Health Department, and other districts in the state interested in their work.
“As a result of presenting that report of recommendations, the school board voted to actually charge us as a board committee,” says Sinha, “and we await our first meeting as a board charge committee in the next week or two.” The plan is to meet every two weeks with reports to other board committees at least once a month.
Committee member Melissa Ugland says she is using her contacts from across Wisconsin and other states to aid in her work, as information about COVID-19 has changed over time.
“I think it’s been hard sometimes for people to know who to believe,” says Ugland. “Are kids at risk of catching the virus and if so, how sick will they get? How safe is it to go to school? What things can schools do to make things safer for kids, and how can families support that safe environment?
“Our team of about two dozen people—all serving as volunteers— brought together expertise from people ranging from EMTs who may have seen how COVID-19 affects people in the home, to surgeons and urgent care physicians who’ve dealt with the worst cases of COVID-19, to people like me who mainly deal with data, reporting, and tracking of trends related to testing and monitoring.
“We were also so fortunate to have mental health professionals who thought deeply about the effects of safer-at-home orders and the anxiety some families might now have at sending kids back into a classroom. I hope that we have been able to help the school district think, using the best scientifically informed materials available, about how to keep school staff, teachers, and students safe.”
Also a member is Dr. Mike Zussman, a licensed psychotherapist at Sunrise Counseling. “The District is taking the safety of our children and families very seriously. While the physical safety of everyone is of utmost importance, the District recognizes the importance of the whole child by including experts in the field of mental health on the panel as well. COVID has taken a serious toll on the mental well-being of a lot of us, and the district is making decisions to address that.”
Sinha says the advisory committee will use their data approach to decide when it may not be safe to hold in-person classes. “We actually had a full working group devoting two weeks of its initial time to actually thinking about what would we be looking for in the community epidemiology of COVID to say it’s time to close fast on in-person learning and reduce that amount versus what would be the path to reopening to full in-person learning five days a week. So we’ve actually developed a set of recommendations that cover that whole spectrum going forward.”
That could be tested when the annual influenza and cold season begins to kick into full gear later in the year. Sinha says she is confident in the committee’s work to look ahead with these challenges. “The one thing we have strongly recommended in our report is that everyone strongly consider and get a flu vaccination, because there is so much overlap in symptomatology between COVID symptoms and flu symptoms that at least having a vaccination and prevention for flu will help mitigate some of that overlap and potentially days of missed school and all kinds of other challenges to keeping the schools smoothly running.”
The committee is also recommending students follow three guidelines they call “The Three W’s”; wearing a mask, watching distance, and washing hands, and make them habits now. The hope is that when colder weather forces people to be indoors more often, it can help mitigate the risks when it comes to spreading viruses like COVID-19.
District leaders support the advisory committee’s work. “The Whitefish Bay School Board and Administration are grateful for the engagement and dedication of community health professionals to advise the District on mitigating health risks during the 2020-2021 school year,” says School Board President Sandy Saltzstein. “Members of the Health Advisory Committee use their collective expertise to review data, protocols, and community health information through a local lens. In cooperation with the North Shore Health Department, the Health Advisory committee recommends best practices to support the health of the Whitefish Bay school community during the pandemic.”
Sinha says the first week of the school year has been good, so far. She credits the ability to reach out to school and district leaders to adapt to what is happening in real time. That includes seeing bicycles parked in close proximity to one another.
“And it was a concern to me just with all my hats on saying will there be adequate physical distancing when the kids come in and out of their bike parking area,” says Sinha. “I was able to just send a quick e-mail to the principal of that school, and action was taken immediately.
“The goal should be that we keep our kids learning in as smooth and best possible way for their health, but we have an entire school community to serve through this committee. It’s really all about the adults, as well, who are running the schools for our kids. We’re just really grateful that we have an opportunity to do this and get a good start on this in the school year.”