Menomonie school board member puts optional masking back on the agenda

By: - October 8, 2021 12:03 pm
CARDIFF, WALES - SEPTEMBER 14: A child wearing a face mask listens during a geography lesson at Whitchurch High School on September 14, 2021. (Photo by Matthew Horwood/Getty Images)

CARDIFF, WALES – SEPTEMBER 14: A child wearing a face mask listens during a geography lesson at Whitchurch High School on September 14, 2021. (Photo by Matthew Horwood/Getty Images)

A northern Wisconsin school board is again being asked to drop a recent COVID-19 mask mandate when the board meets Monday, Oct. 11, after canceling a previous meeting to discuss loosening the requirement.

The Menomonie school board’s agenda for its regularly scheduled meeting now includes a motion for an optional mask policy in place of a requirement for elementary school children enacted two weeks ago. The school district administrator has publicly opposed the mask-optional proposal.

The  Menomonie school district’s COVID-19 policies have drawn scrutiny after the parents of a first-grader with Down syndrome challenged them in a legal proceeding. In a letter to the school superintendent, the family’s lawyer has charged that failure to impose stricter measures to control the spread of COVID-19 violates the child’s rights to appropriate public education under federal law.

The girl’s parents kept her home at the start of the school year because of school board votes that kept COVID-19 mitigation policies, including masking, voluntary. Because of her Down syndrome, their daughter is particularly vulnerable to the SARS-CoV-2 virus responsible for the pandemic.

On Sept. 27, the board by a 5-4 vote instituted a new mask mandate for children in grades 4K-6, and the family anticipated sending their daughter to school, said her father, Thomas Pearson.

The parents changed their minds, however, after the school board scheduled an Oct. 3 special meeting to consider a policy that would require masking for two weeks only after a student or employee tested positive for the virus within two days of being in school, and then only in that person’s grade level. The Oct. 3 meeting was cancelled the day before.

The school district is enforcing the elementary school policy approved Sept. 27, Joseph Zydowsky, administrator for the School District of the Menomonie Area (SDMA), told the Wisconsin Examiner on Friday. The policy requires masks for children in grades 4K-6 and makes them optional for staff.

This week, however, a proposed motion for an “optional mask policy” was added to the school board’s regularly scheduled meeting agenda for Monday, Oct. 11. That motion’s text calls for “a mask optional policy for 4k-12 grade. This policy will remain in place and the board will not revisit it again. Should there be a classroom outbreak, the Superintendent has the authority to suspend classroom instruction in conjunction with school nurses and public health.”

The proposed motion was entered by Angie Skillings, one of two board members elected in April who have consistently voted against COVID-19 mitigation policies, particularly masking requirements.

Zydowsky, the district administrator, has posted a statement opposing the motion on the board website: “It is not recommended that the Board approve this proposal.”

Zydowsky’s statement continues: “This proposal is not aligned with the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, the Dunn County Health Department, the SDMA Medical Advisors, the SDMA District Administrator, the SDMA Administrative Team, the district’s liability insurance carrier, and the advice of SDMA legal counsel.”

Pearson said Friday that while the elementary school mask requirement is being enforced, their daughter has continued to stay home. “We want to send her back as soon as possible,” he told the Wisconsin Examiner in an email message, “but are seeking assurance that the SDMA board won’t change the masking policy from week to week.”

Pearson and the family’s lawyer, Jeff Spitzer-Resnick, said the school district has responded to the lawyer’s letter seeking a hearing under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Issues raised in the letter have not been resolved, they said Friday.


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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary.