BELOIT — The School District of Beloit Turner is closing all its schools and will be moving to all online instruction until Oct. 23 due to newly identified COVID-19 cases.
In a letter to families Thursday morning, Turner Superintendent Dennis McCarthy said two positive coronavirus cases were impacting Powers Elementary School, and one case resulted in a number of staff members being required to quarantine due to contacts with affected individuals.
In a follow-up letter to families later Thursday, McCarthy said all four school buildings were being shifted to online-only instruction through at least Oct. 23.
The decision to close all four schools was made in accordance with the district’s Road to Reopening plan and with guidance from nursing staff, after reviewing Rock County Health Department data and through having discussions with administrative staff and Board of Education President John Turner, McCarthy said.
While he said it was not an easy decision, McCarthy praised district staff and students for their efforts to make one another’s safety a top priority.
“I am proud of our district efforts to date in working through tremendously difficult operating procedures,” McCarthy wrote. “We have been a model for how things should be done and we will continue to operate with that strong sense of pride and diligence.”
He added, “To date, our students and staff have done an excellent job in following our safety protocols.”
All afternoon Early Childhood and 4K classes were cancelled Thursday. Parents were advised to contact the office at Powers if they wished to pick up their children early from school.
Buses were on schedule to run at their usual times Thursday. Teachers at each school were also planning to send students home with Chromebooks and other class materials at the end of the day Thursday.
All classes for Powers were cancelled for Friday as teachers prepared to shift to an all-online model.
Classes at Turner Middle School and F.J. Turner High School were scheduled to continue in-person on Friday and move online effective on Monday, Oct. 12. Instruction at Townview Elementary School was set to go virtual as of Tuesday, Oct. 13.
McCarthy said it is also imperative to the safety of the community that anyone experiencing symptoms or awaiting a test result should stay home whenever in-person classes are in session.
Although McCarthy said the school district has not found any evidence confirming the occurrence of community spread on school grounds, he said behaviors of the general public in the region and nationwide remains an area of concern as COVID-19 cases continue to climb within Rock County and beyond.
A parent, who asked to remain nameless, said she is glad to see the Turner district closing Powers, but is concerned the district is not letting parents know the total cases and when cases pop up in schools unless they are considered close contacts with affected parties.
She said parents need to know the status of COVID-19 cases to make an informed decision on whether to send their child to school for in-person learning.
“The school should be giving parents the information that is needed,” she said.
The parent said she understands the school district can’t release names, but should at least say how many cases are in which schools. It leaves her wondering if there are other cases in the schools which are still open and how many.
Another parent who asked not to be named said the district needs to immediately shut down all of the schools. She said there has been a lack of reporting and communication regarding the number of cases and which schools they originated in.
Thursday was the first time the parent said she received any COVID-related information regarding numbers of positive cases in the schools or lack thereof. It was unclear to her whether there were other cases in the district and it made it difficult for parents to decide if it was safe to send their children.
In recent weeks, the Beloit Daily News has been checking with area schools regarding possible COVID-19 cases in various districts.
When previously asked about the manner in which COVID-19 cases are being reported, McCarthy said the Turner school district would communicate directly with affected families only.
McCarthy also added in a recent email that the district has been sending “countless communications” to Turner families regarding school safety measures this fall.
In an email on Sept. 8, McCarthy referred to HIPPA and FERPA rights and told the Beloit Daily News that disclosing specific information about COVID-19 cases could result in speculation over who has had a positive test.
“Our guidelines for communication will always prevail that when the public has a vested interest to know, they will know. Direct communications to individual students are a part of that student’s record and are not shared with others,” McCarthy wrote at the time.
McCarthy said he would report any COVID-19 cases identified in the school district to the Rock County Health Department, which all schools are required to do.
In any cases where positive COVID-19 cases develop, McCarthy said families will receive one of two types of letters, designated as “low risk” and “close contact.”
If multiple cases develop within a single cohort, that cohort would be shifted to all virtual instruction. McCarthy had said that should a specific school be required to move all classes online, all parents would receive a letter informing them of that decision—and such communication did occur on Thursday.
In an email to the Beloit Daily News on Thursday, McCarthy wrote that as promised, the district will offer “full transparency as situations change.”
In the letter that was sent to Turner families later Thursday afternoon, McCarthy again addressed the subject of how information is being communicated with families and the public.
McCarthy again emphasized that the district’s legal counsel has clearly stated that disclosing details about specific COVID-19 cases would violate the privacy rights of students and staff.
“In all cases, a low risk contact or close contact letter would be sent to anyone potentially impacted by a case situation this year,” McCarthy wrote. “Putting out information of this nature immediately leads to people speculating on who it is and it easily leads to the identification of those individuals, which is against their rights. That is a difficult concept for some to accept, but it is the appropriate response.”