ELLSWORTH -- Ellsworth School District intends to have in-person learning five days a week for all students this fall, but brace for intermittent stoppages, Superintendent Barry Cain told board members Monday night.

“We are using the word fluid in all of our plans,” he said.

Thursday will be an important day in determining how in-person learning occurs during the pandemic, he said. The district has completed a risk assessment tool, so now administrators will meet with Pierce County Public Health to go over that 55-part document.

Cain explained that the county, rather than the state, is the big partner right now. The state Department of Public Instruction and Department of Health Services are offering guidance, but no rules.

Doug Peterson, Ellsworth School Board chair
Doug Peterson, Ellsworth School Board chair

Pierce County Health Officer AZ Snyder is meeting weekly with school nurses to talk scenarios, plans and responses. In addition, Cain said area superintendents are sharing trends and “great professional feedback as we muddle through this” knowing anything can change at any time. All are tweaking plans to fit local needs.

Board Member Gary Kressin cut to the point: “Who makes the final decision -- the Pierce County Health or the School Board?”

“The school district. Bottom line. There are no rules in the state of Wisconsin,” Cain said.

“Wow” is all Kressin had to say.

“What I can tell you is our plan is to come back to school five days a week -- everybody back -- and then all the specifics, all the things we deal with here, to mitigate the disease as best we can,” Cain said.

The board could vote next month on how, when and if to hold classes, or could leave the decision to administration -- a path 25% of area districts appear to be taking, Cain said. Of the 30 in the area consortium, 28 districts are preceding with a five-day plan as Ellsworth is. One district is looking at four days to contain costs.

Board members didn’t wait until August to approve the initial staffing component of the COVID-19 response plan. The district will:

  • Hire two health aides for the middle/high school. Estimated cost $100,000. The elementary school already has an aide.

These health professionals will oversee children who exhibit coronavirus symptoms during the school day, will assist public health with tracking the potential exposure to others in the building and will keep contact with families during the mandated home quarantine periods for all involved.

“Once a COVID case has been defined, there are rules,” Cain added.

  • Hire one part-time custodian. Estimated cost: $15,000. This will enable midday cleaning of high touch areas.

  • Advertise for permanent substitute teachers with no specific limit yet on the number of positions. Cain said the district will need at least three or four. These substitutes will work three days a week and earn 60% of base teacher pay. Estimated cost: $27,000 per position. Even that may not be enough, Cain said, because if too many staff members are out for days at a time -- the minimum stay-at-home period will be 72 hours -- then the district may have to treat those like snow days.

Board members acknowledged the expense, but unanimously supported the hires.

“Be prepared for future needs to be addressed,” Board Chair Doug Peterson said after the vote.

The discussion will continue at the Aug. 10 meeting, which will be in-person barring some change, Peterson said -- all part of fluidity.