Racine health officials order school buildings to close Nov. 27 through Jan. 15

RACINE, Wis. (CBS 58) -- City of Racine health officials issued a public health order on Thursday, Nov. 12, requiring all schools within the jurisdiction of the Racine Public Health Department (includes City of Racine, Wind Point, and Elmwood Park) to close their buildings and suggests schools switch to virtual learning from Nov. 27, 2020, through Jan. 15, 2021.

Students, teachers and staff are not allowed in any school buildings during that timeframe. 

Dottie-Kay Bowersox, the City of Racine Public Health Administrator, issued the order. She says the decision was made based on the numbers. 

“COVID-19 is being spread throughout the community in the number of daily cases and rates of positivity that have not been seen before. Outbreaks are linked to family gatherings on private property with people from outside of their household including sports parties, baby showers, and backyard gatherings. In addition, through retail establishments and employment situations,” said Bowersox.

“Over the last 9 months after every major holiday, significant spikes in positive cases occur because individual gatherings in private residences do not implement the necessary precautions to ensure that they and others do not contract the virus. Given that, the Public Health Department fully expects to see a sharp increase in cases yet again between Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the New Year. Currently schools remain one of the largest gathering places within our jurisdiction and after the holidays, those children and staff could become super spreaders in the community.”

Over the past seven days, the city of Racine has seen cases surge with 680 new cases at a positivity rate over 35 percent and 2 new deaths, bringing the number of deaths due to COVID-19 to 42. During the same time period, the rest of Racine County has seen a similar surge, with 851 new cases and 8 new deaths. Wisconsin in general remains one of the nation’s worst hot spots, seeing more than 7,000 new cases per day, as well as setting records for most number of daily deaths since the beginning of the pandemic.

“This is a difficult decision that will certainly make a segment of the population very unhappy. However, until all of our residents take the very real threat to health and life that this virus presents seriously, we will continue to have to make these tough decisions to slow the spread of COVID-19. Combating COVID-19 requires everyone to take personal responsibility for their actions, and the recognition that inconveniences now, like wearing a mask properly and not participating in family gatherings outside of your immediate household, are necessary to protect public health and save lives,” added Bowersox.

The Public Health order reads:

1. Public and private K-12 school buildings within the boundaries of the City of Racine and the Villages of Elmwood Park and Wind Point shall be closed from November 27, 2020, through January 15, 2021, inclusive. This closure applies to all students, faculty, staff, and administrative personnel. Schools may continue to facilitate distance learning or virtual learning. Schools may continue to be used for Essential Government Functions, emergency services, building maintenance, and food distribution.

2. Duration. This Order shall become effective at 12:01 AM, November 27, 2020. This Order shall terminate on January 15, 2021, at 11:59 PM.

"We have to review the order and work through details," the Racine Unified School District said in a statement. "For our students and families, there will be minimal change as we are remote for the majority of our students already."

But some private schools who are still doing in-person learning, like St. John's Lutheran and Racine Christian Schools, will have to figure out a plan.

The Racine Christian school principal says he was disappointed to see the order.

"To see that email come to me without really having had any voice at the table prior to the decision being made," said the head of Racine Christian School, Pete Van Der Puy.

Principal Van Der Puy felt they've done well -- out of 159 students, only three have tested positive.

He says they've followed all the protocols, everyone wears masks and two temperature checks take place each day.

"Ability for our teachers to connect with students when they're one-on-one and when they're in the classroom together with them, I think it's healthy for the kids emotionally to see each other," Van Der Puy said.

"At this point we are at capacity," said Bowersox. "We are beyond capacity as far as what we can do as a public health department -- concerned again about the hospitals, emergency responders."

While learning inside schools won't be allowed, Bowersox says school buildings may continue to be used for essential government functions, emergency services, building maintenance and food distribution.

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