Parents asked the Lake Mills School District to reconsider its masking policy for the upcoming school year. During the approximately 50 minutes of public comments made during Monday night’s school board meeting with individuals asking for the reinstatement of universal masking outnumbering those who applauded the district’s decision to make face coverings optional. The board did not make any changes to the plan, as it was not an action item on the agenda.
Families were sent coronavirus mitigation protocols Aug. 6, which outlined that masks, while strongly encouraged along with vaccinations, would not be mandated. The plan also set forth other protocols that would be more lenient than last year.
“I did not want to start with the most restrictive mitigation practices that we have,” said District Administrator Dr. Tonya Olson, who along with members of administration created the mitigation plan. “I want what we do as a school district to make sense.”
The administrator said the plan was based on local data provided by the Jefferson County Health Department (JCHD) and Fort HealthCare as opposed to looking at the national numbers offered by the CDC and American Association of Pediatrics.
The most recent data on the Jefferson County Health Department’s website as of Monday showed the 7 day rolling average in Jefferson County was 15 new cases daily per 100,000 people with a two week total of 168 new cases per 100,000 people. Olson admitted while the numbers were low, the number of new COVID-19 cases had started to increase.
Parent Susannah Barnes, who would like to see the district have universal masking, said JCHD data indicates new rates of the virus have been rapidly increasing. Between the dates of July 1-23, the health department reported the school district geographic area saw an increase of 3 cases; over the past two weeks, the same area has seen an increase of 30 reported cases, Barnes said.
She added that the vaccination rate for people who live in the Lake Mills School District geographic area is not even 50%.
“There is no question we are putting our children at risk by not requiring them to wear masks until the vaccine is available to all school-age children,” Barnes said.
Several people who opposed the optional face covering mitigation plan said the decision went against the advice of the CDC, WHO, JCHD, and, as of earlier that day, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. All of the organizations have encouraged people to wear masks indoors.
Olson reminded people that last year, when the CDC recommended all schools start the year completely virtual, Lake Mills chose to have in-person and remote learning options.
“Even though the CDC came up with that recommendation, we chose our local needs to not align with that,” she said.
Other parents attending the meeting and expressed their disagreement with the optional masking said the new delta variant of COVID-19 is more highly transmissible than the original strain and has created breakthrough cases in people who are vaccinated.
“If the delta variant goes through the district, will the administration say they did enough to prevent it,” said one parent who wore an N95 mask to the meeting.
While the impact of the delta variant on the Lake Mills schools is unknown at this time, the district does have information on how it impacted the students and staff.
Data provided at the meeting by district nurse Toni Zastrow, showed during the 2020-21 academic year, 104 students and 27 staff members tested positive for COVID-19 and 671 students and 111 staff were required to quarantine due to close contacts. Additionally, the district nurse pointed out the cases peaked in November, December and January though there were reported cases every month.
Olson noted the district needed to close facilities three times based on the number of COVID-19 cases in the building based on CDC guidance. She said that when looking at the details of those instances of the virus, it was determined there was no significant spread of the virus between close contacts at school.
However, where Olson said the district did see was the virus being passed from parents to children, significant others, and groups who gathered for events occurring outside of school.
Olson, speaking personally, believed more families were looking to make masking optional since a vaccine has been available to anyone ages 12 and older.
“I understand our 11 and under can’t be vaccinated – that’s why we’re mandating our staff who aren’t vaccinated to wear a mask,” she said. “I could possibly see that changing to enforcing all staff to wear masks.”
The mitigation plan explains face coverings for unvaccinated staff will be effective Sept. 1. The plan indicates the reason for staff masking inside district facilities is to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Following the meeting, Olson explained it was important to keep staff as healthy as possible to ensure classes could be held.
Those who agreed with the administration’s decision said they appreciated being able to have a choice. One parent, whose comments were played via a recording, did mention she was disappointed in the fact the district at any time could reinstate masking.
There are instances students will be required to wear a mask; based on a federal Transportation Security Administration (TSA) requirement, all students along with staff and drivers need to wear face coverings while riding the bus. The only exception is if the driver is the sole occupant of the bus.
Additionally, Olson and the administrative team may put in short-term masking requirements if COVID-19 would adversely impact in-person instruction. Following the meeting, Olson said the decision to return to universal masking would be a decision made by the board.
According to the mitigation plan, the district will not require students deemed as close contacts with someone who tests positive for the virus in school facilities to quarantine. Families will be notified if there is exposure and expected to monitor their student for symptoms.
However, a student who has a household member test positive for COVID-19 will need to quarantine for 14 days.
Any student who tests positive for the virus must stay home for 10 days from the onset of symptoms or the day the child tests positive if no symptoms are present.
Some parents questioned why the board allowed Olson to create the mitigation plan and did not need to approve what she presented; following the meeting, Olson said the 2021-22 COVID-19 plan was similar to the summer school plan that the board had already approved.