A proposal by the district administrator on when the Lake Mills Area School District would no longer require students and staff to wear masks was turned down by the school board. The elected officials voted 2-3 in favor of the measure with board President Bob Dimperio and Vice President Amy Litscher casting the positive votes.
Superintendent Tonya Olson presented masking metrics at the Nov. 8 meeting. The proposal would make masking optional for grades 7-12, but if the number of coronavirus cases in a school building was greater than 2% of the student and staff population masks would be temporarily reinstated. This would have gone into effect Nov. 15. The 2% measure would be implemented for the rest of the grades Jan. 3 with masks required until that time. Olson explained the delay for the elementary school and half the middle school is to allow enough time for younger children to get vaccinated.
“I know many people have been waiting for a metric for when we can start loosening up our masking restrictions,” Olson said.
The administrator said in the event a school reaches the 2% threshold, masks would return for 14 days for the specific building impacted by the number of positive coronavirus cases.
“I would say just like any mitigation practices that we did last year and this year, once we get into it and sees how it works and if it makes sense, there’s always opportunity for further revisions,” Olson said.
Olson said this year, there has been an average of three COVID-19 cases per week, though there was a recent uptick in the past week not only locally but in the entire county.
The superintendent said most of the cases are being transmitted at home and not through the schools. There was also no evidence of transmission through high school athletics, when people were allowed to participate and watch contests sans mask.
“I feel we have done a very good job mitigating risks with different layered strategies,” she said, noting masking is just one method used by the district to prevent the transmission of the virus.
The administrator mentioned numerous families have taken advantage of the virus testing being conducted by a third-party on school property twice a week. Additionally, Jefferson County Department of Health Services has resumed COVID-19 testing three days a week in Johnson Creek.
Furthermore, youth ages 5-11 now eligible for coronavirus vaccine and Olson is aware of parents in the district who have already set up immunization appointments for their children.
Board member Ken Eimers said Olson presented a strong plan but was concerned with the number of cases in all of Jefferson County have kept increasing.
“And even if (the numbers) plateau, we’ll be just at the point where we were when the initial vaccines were available,” he said.
Olson said the county health department noted Lake Mills has some of the lowest numbers of cases in Jefferson County and, until the recent uptick, has not been impacted by larger outbreaks.
“We just looked at what was happening at our district and not the county,” she said. “I feel pretty confident we can keep COVID out. We have the data and if it continues to spike, we have the situational masking there and we implement it. It’s going to take more than just masking to get us through.”
Dimperio admitted it was not an easy decision on whether to approve the mask metric proposal. But the district has a few COVID-19 mitigation tools available that did not exist six months ago including testing options and vaccinations.
“I always thought that was a pretty critical component,” he said “I also think a plan like this provides some certainty.… This seems to be reasonable, and I support it.”
Board Treasurer Brianna Behselich also shared her concerns; while the majority of the LMASD students were eligible for vaccines, the 4-year-old kindergarten and pre-K students are still unable to get vaccinated.
“Ultimately, our goal is to be in person and have our kids in person getting a quality education,” she said. “We have to see how this (aligns) with our goal of having kids in person.”
Behselich would prefer waiting a bit longer to ease mask restrictions until a date when more the students – particularly in the ages 5-11 population – had the opportunity to get vaccinated.
“I want to make sure all of our families have all the tools available in their toolboxes,” she said.
Board Clerk Dawn Delaney believed the only way to keep everyone protected was to continue masking.
“It seems like a big risk,” she said. “I’d rather wait.”
Other board action:
• Approved the proposal for the construction of a greenhouse at the high school. The project will be paid for through district fund balance and ESSER funds. The district hopes the construction is completed in the spring.
• Approved the geotechnical contract to have soil sampled at the district-owner property on the southwest part of the city where the district would like to develop an intermediate school to serve grades 3-5.
• Approved the annual school safety plan.