Ripon Area School District (RASD) officials were hoping to loosen the district’s masking requirements after the community’s COVID-19 case rate fell below 350 per 100,000, but the pandemic had other plans.

The case rate in the RASD boundary was 1,568 per 100,000 as of Jan. 11, with a total of 164 cases, according to the Fond du Lac County Health Department. The health department classifies the caseload burden as “critically high.”

In fact, the city of Ripon had a higher case rate than the school district boundary. The city’s case rate was 1,666.3 per 100,000, accounting for 134 cases as of Jan. 11, according to the health department.

As of Tuesday, Fond du Lac County no longer publishes weekly COVID-19 data reports by school district or municipality.

Due to the rising cases, masks remain required in all schools in the district, Superintendent Mary Whitrock told the Ripon School Board Monday.

She explained that when the district set its benchmark of loosening masking requirements at a community case rate of 350 per 100,000, the case rate was around 600 per 100,000. It then fell to roughly 400 per 100,000, before spiking again.

“I don’t see us moving out of that [mask required] status in the very near future,” Whitrock said. “Those who are kind of predicting trends with the virus are saying that we’re probably a few weeks out yet from the peak.”

The Ripon Area School District determines masking in schools through a four-level guidance threshold, which has different levels of masking based on local caseloads.

Ripon isn’t the only place seeing COVID-19 cases increase. Wisconsin experienced record high COVID-19 infections in the last week, straining hospital capacity.

As of Jan. 11, 92.4% of all hospital beds in the state were occupied and 95.1% of intensive care unit (ICU) beds were in use, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

Local health officials have attributed the recent spike in cases to the Omicron variant, and warned that the real caseload is likely higher than the reported caseload due to individuals not getting tested for COVID-19.

“There are probably many people out there who have very minor symptoms right now, who are not being tested and who are also positive,” SSM Health St. Agnes Hospital President Katherine Vergos said at a recent virtual COVID-19 forum. “That number [of reported cases] is probably a little lower than what it really is in the community.”

The recent rise in cases prompted School Board member David Scott to remind district officials that masking takes on an increased importance in periods of high caseloads.

“I hear reports that teachers are teaching without masks, that there’s a lot of sloppiness in wearing them as a lot of them aren’t even wearing them when they teach,” he said. “... With any luck, this is going to be a fairly short-lived spike.

“Now’s the time when we can’t be saying, ‘We’re tired of doing this.’ Now’s the time where we have to say, ‘OK, let’s just do it and do it right for, we hope, two or three more weeks.’ Then we could possibly go back to relaxing.”

Scott added that he had been hearing reports of lax masking for “a while,” but — with COVID numbers increasing — he felt now was the time for a reminder.

“We’re so much higher than we’ve ever been at any time,” Scott said. “The school district had its highest reading last week that I know of.”

Whitrock said there are instructional reasons for teachers to sometimes remove a mask, and that all principals were in attendance at the meeting and would take note of Scott’s concerns.

Beyond masking, Whitrock noted the district is offering COVID-19 testing to students, families and staff through the Noah Lab Testing System.

“All families and staff need to do is [complete] a one-time registration, and then they can come into the clinic at any time to receive a test,” the superintendent said.

She noted the district is only offering PCR testing as there is a statewide shortage of rapid antigen COVID-19 tests.

RASD is working with public health officials to offer another COVID-19 vaccine clinic in either late January or early February, Whitrock added. The vaccine clinic will offer both initial vaccinations and booster doses.

In other news

In other news from the Ripon School Board meeting:

  • The School Board unanimously approved a school bus handbook for students and parents, designed to outline the expectations for riding the bus.

  • The School Board also approved open enrollment seats for the 2022-23 school year. The district will limit open enrollment to grade levels with capacity to accommodate more students in an effort to combat learning gaps created by the pandemic, according to a district memo.

  • In addition, the School Board also discussed a proposal to update the stipend for lead level teachers, who, on average, make less than lead teachers in other districts. Lead-level teachers only qualify for cost-of-living increases, and may qualify for a non-recurring $1,250 stipend. The proposal would create a permanent $1,250 stipend each time they complete three years of qualifying Lead-Educator Improvement Points. The estimated cost to the district beginning this year would range between $21,250 and $25,000, and $6,000 to $8,000 each year moving forward.

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