Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the Nov. 23 announcement from Dane County Public Health authorities that a county-wide mandate of mask wearing in indoor settings has been extended from an expiration date of Nov. 27 to an expiration date of Jan. 3.
The DeForest Area School District is tentatively moving toward the next stage of lifting COVID-19 prevention health restrictions and phasing out face mask requirements. Though the end result of that plan is in question with a countywide indoor mask mandate extension.
DeForest Area School District Superintendent Eric Runez provided the Board of Education a mixed report on COVID prevention at their Nov. 22 meeting. District staff have noted an uptick in reported COVID infections among students, Runez told the board, reflecting a recent statewide trend.
Throughout much of the pandemic, the school district, along with countless nationwide, has been under pressure from parent groups opposing mask requirements. DeForest Area School District administrators have been able to point to a county-wide indoor mask mandate issued by Public Health Madison and Dane County as reason that it was out of the district’s control.
That public health order was due to expire on Nov. 27 and PHMDC had indicated there was no plan to renew it as of the time of the meeting, but the following day announced that it would be extended to Jan. 3.
Younger Wisconsinites have been the most at-risk group statewide, with 10 new positive cases among DeForest’s kindergarten through sixth graders reported just on Nov. 22. That and the likelihood of increased transmission during the holiday season, Runez explained, led to a plan to lift in-school mask requirements starting on Jan. 3.
After the start of the new year, masks would be recommended, but not required, for students in grades 7 through 12 while indoors. Two weeks later, the new policy would include kindergarten through sixth grade.
One reason for the timing of the plan was to allow every opportunity for all children ages 5 and above to receive a vaccination and have two weeks to subsequently build immunity. A positive sign, according to Runez, is the low infection numbers among older students, largely credited to an estimated vaccination rate of over 70% among those in grades 7 to 12.
In regards to extracurricular activities, Runez told the board that the plan will be for more flexibility, with no masks during strenuous activities or performances. So on a basketball team, students would not be wearing masks while playing on the court, but asked to wear masks when they are on the bench or meeting in a classroom.
On the performing arts front, those in theater productions would be asked to wear masks during rehearsals, but not be expected to wear them during actual performances.
In both cases, the audience would be asked to wear masks, but it would not be a requirement, a stipulation that Runez said mostly had to do with not wanting to put staff in a position of having to enforce a mask requirement with parents and other visitors.
“Quite honestly, the kids have been tremendously cooperative,” said Runez, explaining that he did not want to “subject the staff” to the likely issues that would arise from mask enforcement.
The situation remains “fluid” according to Runez, explaining that the administration was aware of a possibility that things could change, making it necessary to reinstate a mask mandate. If that happened in the future though, it would likely be specific to a school or a classroom over a limited amount of time, like two weeks.
While anti-mask protesters have often been the most audible and visible contingency of parents in the argument, there has continued to be a steady stream of support for maintaining COVID mitigation policies, particularly as a matter of not disregarding students who have conditions that put them at particular risk.
“Those that ask for masking,” Runez told the board, “it has always been within the fenceposts of ‘until that age group can get vaccinated.’”
Medical Advisor Dr. David Ringdahl appeared before the board for the announcement to provide support and answer questions.
“It’s clear that there is no standardized system,” said Ringdahl, explaining that it would be interesting to see how it all would unfold. By comparison, Ringdahl said that some schools in the northern part of the state went back to unmasked in-school classes early, then requiring masks, and back to virtual, and that a goal of the district was to avoid a “yo-yo” effect like that.
Board Treasurer Keri Brunelle asked Runez if there would be a similar phasing-out of COVID-based scheduling and distancing during lunch, to which Runez said it would be kept in place for the time being. The intent is not to throw too many variables into the next phase of COVID mitigation.
New board member Gussie Lewis commented that her daughter had been concerned about the elimination of mask requirements, fearing a situation where the school would have to be closed again. Having talked through the proposed process, Lewis said that she felt more confident going forward with the policy shift.
Among the school board members, Jeff Hahn has shown the most active interest in revisiting mask requirements in earlier meetings.
“So we have roughly about a month?” Hahn asked.
“Yes,” said Runez, “we’re trying to take the whole district into consideration.”
“I think parents are looking for a pathway,” said Hahn, “and this gives it to them.”
Those plans will certainly be a revisited point of discussion among board members in December meetings as the current proposal is potentially superseded by the extended indoor mask order from county health authorities.
The DeForest Area School District has kept on online webpage dedicated to COVID-19 related updates including numbers of reported infections, quarantines among students and staff, and updated policy descriptions at www.deforest.k12.wi.us/district/covid-19-dasd.cfm.