Rock County public health officials clarified Friday that absentee rates for students and staff will be among the metrics used to determine when or if a classroom or school should close because of COVID-19.

If 7.5% of students and staff are absent from school because of illness, the school will be considered "in the red" and the county health department likely would investigate further before making a decision, health officials said.

Decisions on if classrooms or schools are closed or if districts or schools pivot to virtual learning will be up to each district administrator with guidance from the health department. School and health officials will compare other sets of data such as positivity rate and will rely on multiple statistics before deciding.

In addition to positivity rate, officials will monitor metrics such as:

  • The number of people absent with COVID-19 symptoms.
  • The number out sick with non-COVID symptoms.
  • New case trends over 14 days.
  • Percentage changes in positive cases over the last 14 days.

“There is no set number that says, ‘OK, we will close.' It’s all based on looking at all of the data together,” said Lori Soderberg, public health supervisor for Rock County and a former Beloit Turner School District school nurse.

A “stoplight” model will be used by district administrators to track the possible spread of COVID-19 when students return to school, Soderberg said.

School district leaders will plug information about students and staff into an interactive county database each day. The database will dictate how each school is performing.

  • Green will indicate smooth sailing.
  • Yellow will indicate increased conversations and planning should begin.
  • Red will indicate intervention is needed.

If a district begins to see red in multiple areas, the county likely will recommend closure of a classroom, school building or district.

Each district will be able to choose its own numbers for the metrics, but the health department has recommended illness rates of 2.5% of the school population for green, 5% for yellow and 7.5% or higher for red.

“There isn’t a true cutoff,” Soderberg said, “but a key number is the positivity rate in both schools and the county.”

The positivity rate is the percentage of people tested who test positive for the virus.

The guidelines were created after discussions with district leaders, health professionals in the county and examination of other states returning to schools.

Janesville School District Superintendent Steve Pophal said Friday that the district plans to follow the county's recommended percentages.

The system also will show COVID-19 data for all people in the county and within each school district.

About 4.5% of tests in Rock County are coming back positive, Soderberg said. The county is in the “red zone” for ongoing person-to-person transmission and hospitalization for COVID-19 symptoms.

Weekly meetings between area superintendents and the health department will continue into the school year, and planning for positive cases has been a joint effort between schools and the county.

The health department has assigned two public health nurses to act as liaisons with each area school district. The nurses will be contacts when districts believe a student might have COVID-19 and is being tested or showing symptoms.

The Janesville School District is preparing flowcharts detailing how to handle different levels of exposure and symptoms among students and teachers. If a school is closed or the district closes in-person instruction entirely because of confirmed positive cases, the pivot likely would be for at least 14 days, Soderberg said.

If there are positive cases in schools, the districts would work with the health department to contact trace and consider next steps.

“If we find out that they are school age or college age, those are the cases we’re going to jump on right away and really focus on because they likely have the largest number of contacts,” Soderberg said. “We want to make sure we contact them within 24 hours but have the interview done in 48 hours so that we can perform contact tracing and isolation protocols.”

“We’re trying to do everything that we can to narrow it down for them (district leaders) and help them make these decisions,” she said.

She approves of the mask requirements for area schools and the schools rearranging classrooms and teachers for safety, but she hopes districts in the county increase the number of school nurses available.

“It’s going to be very, very important for our schools to have a school nurse full-time in the buildings every day of the week. There are many schools in Wisconsin and the U.S. that share nurses or don’t have a school nurse fulltime.”

She said this year that can’t happen.

“Of the last 100 years, this is the most paramount year that they have a full-time nurse in every district and, preferably, every building.”

COVID-19 will hit schools, regardless of safety precautions. Now it’s all about taking precautions to minimize risk and the possibility of it spreading, Soderberg said.

“We are going to have cases, and we’re going to have to learn to deal with that the best way we can. We might have to open and close, but it will be a decision based on the data and conversations with administrators and the health department,” Soderberg said.

“Everybody has worked really hard to allow our kids to go to school and start out the school year as safe as possible. I think the parents should feel really good about that.”

This story was changed at 1:30 p.m. Friday to reflect that absentee rates are among many metrics that will influence whether a school or classroom is closed.