School districts face heated battles over whether or not to ditch masks 

By: - April 29, 2021 7:00 am
students at desks in classroom wearing masks for COVID-19 coronavirus prevention teacher also wearing mask bending over to help student

School children wearing masks (Stock photo | Getty Images)

On March 30, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that continuing Gov. Tony Evers’ mask mandate was unconstitutional. The ruling ended the conflict at the state level and moved the conflict to hand-to-hand combat at the school board level. The divisions are great, not only from community to community, but within communities as well. Wisconsin is a patchwork of experiences and perceptions concerning the COVID-19 pandemic.

A rising infection rate among children

Hudson, Wis. is only twenty minutes from downtown St. Paul. The freeway bridge quickly carries the commuter across the St. Croix River, the dividing line between Wisconsin and Minnesota. The same bridge brought the UK variant of COVID-19 to Wisconsin — the variant that is now ravaging our neighboring state. 

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“You can see how it is starting to spread into western Wisconsin,” says Hudson School Superintendent Nick Ouellette. “We have had an uptick of cases in the district.” He went on to explain at an April 12 school board meeting that increased cases came from actions outside of school. “We did have issues with sleepovers.” 

Ouellette explained that the UK variant, B1.1.7, is spreading faster among children than adults. The school district is considering a vaccination clinic at the high school for everyone age 16 and over.

The district has eased some of its mask restrictions, allowing children to go mask-less outside so long as they maintain social distancing. Plexiglass barriers in the cafeteria are still up but broken barriers are not being replaced.

“I think the best thing we can do is keep the masks going. They have proven to be a pretty good mitigation factor,” says Ouellette. “We are trying to strike a balance between ways to reduce our mitigation strategies and also not set ourselves back where we have so many cases that we have to change our instructional model.” At the school board level there is no talk of ditching the masks.

The population of St. Croix County is a mix of rural, small town residents  with long established roots in the community and commuters who travel back and forth across the border to work in Minneapolis-St. Paul. As the Twin Cities have grown, the small town of Hudson has become a bedroom community for its big city neighbor. 

The rural-urban divide within the town was visible  at a small anti-vaccine, anti-mask protest held outside the county health department meeting on April 21. What is happening in Minnesota might appear to the protesters as having little connection to them, but local infection rates are rising. The latest 7-day average for COVID in St. Croix County is 24%. The greatest increase was among people between the ages of 10-19. 

Stay the course

East Troy is southwest of Milwaukee, just far enough away that it is not considered a suburb. 

At the April 12 school board meeting, the major discussion was the failed school referendum, why it failed and how the district will make do with the money it has. The issue of mask-wearing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 was  secondary, since the district has not seen a significant change in virus infections.

One teacher spoke asking that the board maintain the mask requirement. Many people have family members with underlying health issues at home. “We work with children who cannot get vaccinated,” she said.

Superintendent Christopher Hibner said that East Troy’s infection rate is “moderately high,” a slight uptick from the “moderate” range the community previously posted. The number of students who elected virtual education at the beginning of the year, 147 students (9.8%) has declined to 94 students( 6.3%).

“We don’t know if there have been any unintended  exposures” during spring break, said Hibner. The board felt fairly good about the district’s virus situation and soon  turned their attention to spring football victories and the prom.

Hibner pointed out that the Supreme Court mask ruling changed nothing as far as the district was concerned. Originally the re-entry handbook made reference to the governor’s order. “We removed the statement on the state mandate,” said Hibner.  Instead, the district made the mask mandate its own. “The East Troy School District will require face covering and will continue to reassess as needed throughout the school year.”

Some school districts have been able to drop their mask requirement without a vote of the school board because the board policy was dependent upon the governor’s emergency order. When the order went away because of a ruling by the Supreme Court, so did the school mask requirement.

The East Troy school board had to do nothing to maintain the mask requirement, but board members wanted to underscore that they still required masks. Said one board member, “I would wear this thing for the rest of my life if I could get back some of the things our kids had to give up last year.” More than one board member echoed the desire to “get through the next two months.”

School Board President Ted Zess had a different perspective: “I personally believe face masks have not done much based upon the data I’ve seen.” He went on to say, “On the other hand, I do understand that they may do something, and that has been the overriding feeling of school and the staff and a lot of the kids. Maybe it is helping. I don’t know. At this point I don’t see changing it is worth it with 6, 8 weeks left.”

One more comment was added: “Maybe they are doing more harm than good, based upon the data I’ve seen.”

At this point, a lone voice from another board member could not be controlled: “What the hell!”

The motion to maintain face masks the rest of the school year and summer school passed, 4-1.

The rural-urban divide

Support for wearing masks is strongest in larger communities; rural and small-town communities are less likely to embrace masks. Terry McCloskey is a member of the Three Lakes school board and tries to explain why these differences may exist.

He was a captain in the United States Navy, living and working around the world. When he retired 25 years ago, he and his wife moved to the Three Lakes area. As far as his connection to the community, McCloskey understands, “You are always an outsider unless you are born here.” He attributes his election to the school board to the fact that  he worked as a meteorologist for a Rhinelander television station for several years and was well known in the community.

He is reluctant to reveal the inner workings of his own school board or the state board of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards where he is a member. But his insider/outsider perspective gives him unique insight into his community. 

“We are a little more conservative in our thought process. The area likes to keep things like they are. We don’t like changes. I don’t want to say it is a different set of values, but the values are applied a little differently.

“We believe, as individuals, we should have the freedom to make our own decisions, not have decisions forced upon us by Madison or the governor, and that flies in the face of a pandemic.”

McCloskey understands the need to get most people vaccinated to reach the goal of herd immunity, but, he says,   “there is a segment of the people who don’t believe that is true.”

There are people in urban communities who are against vaccines and face masks as well, but clearly rural areas are less supportive of these mitigation strategies.

McCloskey sees  rural values of self-reliance and a sense that the rest of the world is, far away as working against the vaccination effort. 

Ditch the masks

Perhaps no rural school district in Wisconsin has had a more contentious discussion over the mask requirement than Medford. It sits right in north central Wisconsin and in the middle of Taylor County. A recent Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article stated that this county had the highest proportion of Trump voters in the last election at 72%. It also has the lowest percentage of people who have received the COVID vaccine at less than 23%. 

Medford’s school board president, Dave Fleegel, made it clear from the very beginning of an April 17 special board meeting that he was in favor of getting rid of masks. Although the superintendent, Patrick Sullivan, stated that he would follow the directives of the board, it was also clear he favored keeping masks. The rest of the board was evenly divided. Challenging Fleegel most vigorously was Brian Hallgren.

Most of the members of the public who testified at the meeting were for getting rid of masks. They pointed to the extremely low infection rate in Taylor County. It made little sense that everyone should wear masks in school when few wear them in public.  Said one citizen, “Everybody I saw was on the beach, across the country. They didn’t have masks on. They didn’t look scared, out enjoying life. I feel it is time to move on.”

One individual, speaking for the bus drivers, said that they hope that they don’t have to wear masks. It can affect their driving. This speaker apparently did not understand that the mask ruling for bus drivers comes from the U.S. Department of Transportation and cannot be undone by the school district.

Fleegel challenged Hallgren, saying that he previously stated that Hallgren would support dropping the mask requirement if the governor’s order was ended. Hallgren shot back that he meant that he would follow the governor’s lead if he no longer considered the requirement necessary, not an order from the Supreme Court.

Patricia Krug from Taylor County Health Department reported that  20% of school staff did not get their shots. The school district should follow state health department guidelines and wear masks and socially distance, she said.

Then came a flurry of statements by board members from all directions:

“We are going to follow the science.”

“There is science on all sides of the issue.”

“Where?”

“The CDC.”

“I looked at the CDC. I found one report.”

“Let’s call a recess and get the science up on the board. And that’s not Fox News.”

“98% of the people I’m talking to are not going to get the vaccine because it’s a flu shot. I’ve never gotten a flu shot in my life.”

Fleegel showed a locally produced video that claimed  that Taylor County was unlikely to see any spike in the virus.

Hallgren shot back after the video. “He talked zero about the variants… It is proven that it is hitting the kids the hardest.” He would support dropping masks only if they were proven unnecessary, he said, adding, “It wouldn’t be some political bullshit before the Supreme Court.”

Krug from the county health department was clearly against the dropping  the mask mandate. Instead she pushed for everyone to get vaccinated, but acknowledged that many fear the vaccine. What do people think will  happen if they get the shot?  “Zombies are going to come out when you push the button.”

The school board voted to drop the mask requirement for grades 4 and under on a vote of 5-4. 

Finishing the job

That wasn’t good enough for many citizens. On Friday, April 23, 25 students walked out of school protesting the high school mask requirement. Sullivan said they were truant, and 15 students were ticketed.

The school board met again on April 26 for its regular monthly meeting.

During the public comment segment, one parent presented a petition to maintain the mask requirement. She contended that the new variants put the community at greater risk. She believes that infections rates are much higher because people are unwilling to report their infection unless they need medical attention.

This was partly confirmed by another citizen who stated that she and her husband probably had COVID-19, but their symptoms were minor, and they wanted to go deer hunting.

High school students who were part of the walkout said wearing masks should be a personal choice. They said they had trouble breathing and focusing on their studies.

When the board turned to possible action, board members stated that there were no positive COVID-19 cases in the school system at this time. Said one board member, “The number can’t go below zero.”

But a school official at Medford Elementary stated that they had two active cases. It appears there could be an increasing rate of infection since they lifted the mask mandate for children in fourth-grade and younger.

Krug stated that wearing masks was still the recommendation of the Department of Public Instruction. Fleegel countered that was a recommendation, not a requirement, and the board was within its rights to go in a different direction.

He made a motion that face masks be optional for students, staff and visitors in the school buildings for the rest of the school year and summer school so long as the 7-day average for COVID-19 infections was 15 or less. Students would still have to wear masks on the bus based upon federal regulations. And the district would follow mask requirements at sporting events.

Superintendent Sullivan stated that he had an opinion from the school system’s legal counsel. “Not having a masking policy could leave a school district open to litigation” He just wanted to have it out there. There was no follow-up by the board.

Fleegel’s motion passed 6-3.

At the April 17 meeting Brian Hallgren said board members should not be hypocrites. He dared the board members, if they believed the virus wasn’t that dangerous, to drop all safety measures.

“If this board is dumb enough to take the masks off, I agree with Brian,”  another board member concurred. “Bring everybody back, everyone that’s on virtual, cease that on the same day. Let’s go. Let’s go back to business as normal, and if it blows up in our face because of a variant, we only have ourselves to blame.”

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Terrence Falk
Terrence Falk

Terrence Falk worked for more than 31 years as a Milwaukee Public School teacher and served for 12 years on the Milwaukee school board and as Milwaukee's representative to the Wisconsin Association of School Boards. He has written for Milwaukee Magazine, Shepherd Express, Science Magazine, Urban Milwaukee and School News.

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