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LUHS eases COVID contact tracing protocol

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MINOCQUA – The administration at Lakeland Union High School is easing its protocol for students and staff who have come into close contact with a person with COVID-19 symptoms, but who themselves are not showing any symptoms.

Shawn Umland’s motion to adopt the new policy passed 5-1 Monday. Barry Seidel voted “nay.” Board members Gary Smith, Dean Bortz and Shari Nimsgern were absent.

As recommended by the administration, the new policy states: “Classroom close contacts, who are not symptomatic, may remain in school, if they choose. However, they will be expected to check in with the school nurse each morning for a temperature and symptom check until the seventh day from exposure.”

Previously, such contact resulted in the student or staff member being required to stay home for 10 days and to remain symptom free. A negative test after 3-5 days allowed students to return to school quicker.

The new guidelines also apply to those who come in close contact with a person with COVID symptoms outside of the school setting.

It was noted that Lakeland has only one active COVID-19 case currently.

The new policy didn’t satisfy several parents who asked the board to do away with contact tracing entirely for those who are not symptomatic. Their concerns were twofold: one, they felt students being required to check in with the nurse each morning singled them out by their peers. A couple of speakers labeled it as waiting in the “Line of Shame.” Two, they said a long line likely would result in the student being late to class.

Former board member Matt Kock asked if it wasn’t time for the “pendulum to swing back” from so much focus on COVID-19. Are those restrictions causing anxiety, anger and disruptive behavior by students, he wondered?

How can students, and even staff, focus on tests, athletics, drama performances and lesson plans when they don’t know if the morning check might send them home? he continued. He characterized that uncertainty as “what if?” moments. While he appreciated the change from requiring at-home quarantine for asymptomatic students, he said the board should “hit the pause button” on contact tracing.

Among the parents’ other arguments was the belief that parents should be the ones assessing a child’s health and suitability to attend school. “Let kids that aren’t feeling well stay home based on the direction of their parents and their guardians,” Kock urged.

Former board member James Wescott, Craig Holmquist and Nancy Wescott also spoke out against contact tracing at school. “We ask that you loosen up a bit,” said Holmquist on the contact tracing. Nancy Wescott brought up concerns about asymptomatic students sent home, but who don’t have adequate parental or guardian support. They may not be getting fed and not getting educated, she said.

Contrary to reports of shouting and threatened violence at schools elsewhere in the nation, the discussion at Minocqua was non-confrontational, with speakers thanking board members for their work and focus on students.

Umland noted the rash of lawsuits and school board recalls occurring across the U.S. as pro- and anti-vaccine and related mandates forces battle it out. “We have to have an almost perfect balance between safety and freedom,” he said. “I want to provide both.”

Seidel said contact tracing “is a huge waste of resources.” He asked if the school could provide funds for parents to purchase COVID test kits for home testing. He also favored recording the close contacts and letting parents make the decision (on keeping students in or out of school). “If the kid is sick, please don’t send them to school.”

Principal Chad Gauerke said he gets calls from both sides on the COVID restrictions. “Our numbers are good now,” he said. “What we are doing worked last year. What we are doing worked this year.” The number of cases of close contact and actual cases compare favorably with last year, despite having 300 more students in school this year, he said.

“I would hate for us to jump too far and take a real bath (in covid cases),” the principal said. “My opinion, let’s make changes as discussed. We can always lighten up further.”

District Administrator Claire Martin said the revised policy was developed in consultation with the school nurse Kathy Reimer and the administration team. Afterwards, she said many students arrive at school well before the first bell. They will monitor the situation and if long lines develop, then they will seek a remedy.

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