For the last few months, the La Crosse School District was working with the county’s health department on how to safely re-open schools, including the use of the COVID-19 Compass.
But Aug. 5 — less than a month before classes were set to begin — the department abruptly announced it would no longer update the compass, and took it offline days later.
“Yeah the timing couldn’t have really been worse,” La Crosse Schools Superintendent, Dr. Aaron Engel, said Tuesday on La Crosse Talk PM. “I think most of us in education were pretty upset.
“We’ve been working closely with the county to develop that tool, and understand the risk in our county. And so, to lose that all of a sudden, with nothing in its place, was a real disappointment.”
For months, the county and all the area schools had been meeting regularly to come up with the best plan for reopening. In late July — 10 days before the compass went offline — the district decided to go virtual learning for the first month.
After the announcement that the compass would no longer be used, there wasn’t a replacement for 16 days. The health department finally launched, what is called the Coulee COVID-19 Collaborative, last Friday — coincidentally 16 days before La Crosse schools are set to start, virtually, on Sept. 1.
“I was speechless as we learned about that information, and not very happy,” Engel said of the compass getting removed. “I’m a strong advocate for public schools, and that sort of process definitely had me on edge.
“We had just made some of our decisions about how we were going to proceed, and so timing was really inopportune. It was unfortunate.”
The collaborative is just that, a team effort between the health department, Mayo Clinic Heath System and Gundersen Health System in La Crosse.
After venting a bit on WIZM, though, Engel did talk about how COVID-19 is a novel coronavirus, bursting into existence in late 2019, so he understands that things around it are continuously changing.
“The message was that the tool that we had in place had worked well for us with the information we had, but we’re always learning more about this virus, and its impact and effects on our community,” Engel said. “And the hospitals felt like they could bring a different perspective, and felt like we could move in a different direction.”
So, for the past few days, Engel has been doing a lot of research, trying to get caught up on the new data, which uses the Harvard Global Health Institute model as a guide for assessing the virus level in the county.
“I have done a ton of reading on that to learn more,” Engel said. “I didn’t go into education to be a public health expert but, at this time, it’s my job to learn as much as possible.”
“We’re also examining some additional documentation that the Harvard Global Health Index has on education — examining the suitability of that guidance for schools to use in our counties.”
Engel has been on the job since July 1, coming over from superintendent duties the past five years in the Gale-Ettrick-Trempealeau School District.
There, school starts in class on Thursday. Engel said he expects, next week already, to get some guidance from his relationships at G-E-T on how things are going, so he can get a better feel for what to expect if La Crosse goes to in-person classes in October.