The Gibraltar School Board chose not to close the school Friday afternoon in response to the spread of the COVID-19 virus, but by the end of the day, Governor Tony Evers did it for them.
Gov. Evers ordered the state Department of Health Services to close all k-12 schools Friday. The shutdown begins Wednesday and runs through April 5. The move comes two days after he provided guidance that no gatherings of 250 or more people should be held, but curiously left schools open.
“Closing our schools is not a decision I made lightly, but keeping our kids, our educators, our families, and our communities safe is a top priority as we continue our work to respond to and prevent further spread of COVID-19 in Wisconsin,” Evers said.
The order requires all schools close by the end of day Wednesday, but Southern Door, Gibraltar, Sevastopol, and Sturgeon Bay plan to hold classes Monday and Tuesday. On Wednesday staff will report to plan alternative education activities for students.
“Our children need our guidance to put this surreal situation in perspective,” said Southern Door superintendent Patti Vickman in a statement sent to parents Friday. “Especially when the life they are used to in school, and their participation in so many special activities, have now been significantly curtailed. Perhaps this is a time, when we all step back, and help each other appreciate the important things in life, like our health, our family, and our friends!”
At Sturgeon Bay Schools, superintendent Dan Tjernagel said the situation is fluid, and if local medical experts tell them they should close sooner they are prepared to do so. Sevastopol superintendent Kyle Luedtke said that “at this point, Sevastopol is following the directions from our government.”
In a special board meeting Friday afternoon Gibraltar School Board President Mark Weborg said the reaction to the virus is overblown.
“My personal view is we’re blowing this out of the world here,” Weborg said in a discussion over how the school would operate if schools closed. “It’s a flu. We’re turning the world upside down in fear.”
Weborg said the virus doesn’t affect children and the young, and that people his age are the ones who need to worry.
But fellow board members Angela Sherman and Lauren Bremer “respectfully disagreed.”
Sherman reminded the board that children are strong carriers of the disease who could spread the virus. Bremer said the school should be careful about a scenario where they could be sending carriers home to their grandparents.
More than 30 percent of Door County’s population is 65 and older. The percentage is even higher in Northern Door County, where Gibraltar is located and where Sister Bay is the oldest community in Wisconsin. Many parents in the area rely heavily on elderly grandparents for child care support.
Resident Marc Savard agreed with Weborg, however.
“Is it so serious we need to be closing? I would recommend no,” he said. “If our phones pinged every time someone got the flu our phones would never turn off.”
The flu kills an estimated 30,000 – 40,000 Americans every year, but there is a vaccine and treatments for the flu. There is no treatment or vaccine for COVID-19. The United States now has more than 1,500 cases of COVID-19 but has performed few tests.
UPDATE: As of March 14, the U.S. has 1,629 confirmed cases and 41 deaths due to COVID-19, including 27 cases in Wisconsin.
Superintendent Tina Van Meer said she called the emergency meeting because the events of last week were too important to wait until the next meeting in April. The Governor declared the virus a public health emergency, and President Trump was preparing to declare a national emergency.
“When the say it’s ten times deadlier than the flu, that is a little alarming to me,” said Jill Alexander, a parent.
Much of the board’s discussion centered on when and how e-learning programs would be executed in the event that school closes, and whether the school should close after spring break.
Van Meer said the school distributed laptop computers to elementary students Friday to take home in anticipation of potential closure. Assistant Principal Tim Mulrain outlined a detailed plan for how the school will continue to provide education in a home setting through e-learning.
“The staff will prepare one week of e-learning activities and be prepared to implement the plan at any time,” he said. That plan will now go into effect Wednesday.
In discussion about closing after spring break, board member Don Helm said that might be a half-measure.
“If you’re going to do something eventually, you might as well do it immediately,” he said.
Bremer questioned why the school would keep the doors open in light of pleas for residents to practice social distancing.
“If that’s what we’re asking our families to do, why are we not asking that of our kids when they go to school?” she asked.
Bremer said she appreciated the discussion about e-learning and post-spring break plans, but urged the board to focus on higher priorities: food for families who rely on school lunches, child care, and public health.
Van Meer said that in the event schools close, “our administrative staff will be here if we have to drive buses to deliver meals and laptops.”
Board member Stephen Seyfer cautioned the board to consider that the closure might last much longer, given that there is no standard yet for when it’s safe to reopen schools.
“If we close, it may be for the rest of the school year,” he said. “If we close, we have to sustain it.”
Parent Mike Mitterman asked the board how many cases in the area would be the threshold for closure. The board ultimately determined that if there was one case reported in Door County, it would close.
Data from other communities suggests that if there is one case reported in an area, there are already many others circulating.