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RACINE – As the number of COVID-19 cases has increased, health officials want the Racine Unified School District Board of Education to require staff and students to wear face masks.

The current re-entry plan allows students and staff the option to wear a mask, but that policy may change as the district considers new data and recommendations.

“We hope that this current surge in cases will not last long, but until the surge abates, simple but effective prevention measures must be taken for the well-being of all in our communities, especially to protect those too young to be vaccinated and the highly vulnerable,” said Dottie-Kay Bowersox and Margaret Gesner, Health Officers for the City of Racine and Central Racine County Health Departments.

The reason behind the recommendation: public health officials hope to stave off a potential surge in hospitalizations. A month ago, the average daily case rate for the state hovered at about 70 new cases per day. This week, the daily case rate for the state skyrocketed to about 1,100 cases per day, according to the Department of Health Services.

How Racine Unified plans to respond

At an RUSD board meeting on Aug. 2, school superintendent Dr. Eric Gallien said administrators could change the Smart Start plan due to the pandemic and make masks mandatory.

SOURCE: Wisconsin Department of Health Services

The district policy around requiring masks is based on gating criteria. These criteria will be updated to include whether masking should be optional, but a certain threshold must be met to trigger that decision. Those updates will be introduced at the next board meeting on Aug. 16.

The RUSD School Board would need to adopt the plan, but it would be up to school administrators to implement it.

“As we acknowledge that this pandemic is a fluid situation and it’s ever-changing, we want to be cautious and do our due diligence as we have up until this point,” he said. “As we proceed to work with the data that is provided to us… and get advice from our local health departments, we will bring back any updates that need to be communicated out to the public.”

Where to get a COVID-19 test.

Local health official say fask masks among tools to stave off potential surge

The sharp increase in the number of cases over the past few weeks served as an alarm across the state as 71 of the 72 counties have high transmission rates for public health officials. Milwaukee County has been designated as a county where a very high rate of transmission has occurred. Racine and Kenosha counties have high rates of transmission, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

But having high case rates doesn’t automatically translate into high hospitalizations rates.

In contrast, Victoria Schmidt, a spokesperson for Ascension-All Saints Hospital, said they are not experiencing high COVID-19 inpatient volumes at this time, and they can treat all patients diagnosed with COVID-19. But that could change quickly.

She stressed the importance of vaccination and following masking and social distancing practices.

“We are optimistic that as younger age groups are vaccinated, our case numbers will start to decline. We must work together to slow the transmission of COVID-19 and care for all those in need,” Schmidt said. 

“Everyone in our community plays a critical role in keeping us safe from this virus. The most effective way we can protect ourselves, and each other right now is by getting vaccinated and encouraging our friends and family to get vaccinated,” Schmidt stated in an email.

Still, Bowersox voiced concerns about the potential for that to happen.

Smart Start plan allows for district flexibility

Planning during an unpredictable pandemic has been complex. That’s why district administrators plan to use the gating criteria to respond properly.

Two Racine County health departments encouraged school board members to consider their recommendations when adopting the plan.

 According to a press release from the two health departments, they recommend implementing a universal masking requirement regardless of vaccination status. The policy remains in line with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), and most recently the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS).

Bowersox said that people who are eligible for vaccination should get vaccinated and everyone needs to wear a mask when they are indoors to avoid a potential surge.

 “Given new evidence on the Delta variant, the AAP, CDC, and DHS have updated their school guidance, recommending universal indoor masking and a layered approach to COVID-19 prevention strategies,” according to the press release. “This includes physical distancing, enhanced ventilation, and handwashing heading into the fall. A significant portion of the student population is not eligible to receive the vaccine, and masking is a proven tool in mitigating the spread of the COVID-19 virus.”

 The reasons for the recommendation

 City of Racine Public Health Department Public Health Officer Dottie-Kay Bowersox outlined several reasons for the recommendation, including:

  •  The CDC classifies Racine County as having a high level of community transmission, making the new CDC recommendation for universal masking in schools even more imperative.
  • According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, rates of COVID-19 infection in children and adolescents are comparable to rates in adults. Still, cases in children and adolescents have been under-detected.
  • Children and adolescents can also transmit COVID-19 infection to others, as evidenced by outbreaks among adolescents attending camps, sports events, schools, and children and adolescents to household contacts.
  • Studies of COVID-19 transmission show that schools that have implemented layered prevention strategies – including face masks – have successfully limited transmission in schools.
Gavin DeGrave | Racine Fire Dept | Gavin wears a mask to keep his family, friends, and patients safe.

Where to get vaccinated in Racine or Racine County.

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Denise Lockwood has an extensive background in traditional and non-traditional media. She has written for Patch.com, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine and the Kenosha News.