Waunakee school-board members voted this week to lift the district’s mask mandate for students in grades 7-12, making facial coverings optional upon expiration of the current public-health order on Nov. 27.

“Personally, I’m very pleased to see the optional flexibility we’re going to have at the middle school and high school. It’s time for that transition,” Waunakee Community School District (WCSD) Director of Secondary Curriculum & Instruction Tim Schell said. “But I do think there’s some unique pieces with vocal performance where we need a little more time.”

WCSD has had a mask requirement in place since August, when school-board members decided to reinstate the district’s masking policy following recommendations from Public Health Madison Dane County (PHMDC) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Both organizations recommended masks this summer for students located indoors.

PHMDC issued an official mask mandate on Aug. 19, at which point everyone inside a building was required to wear a facial covering – including K-12 students and staff. The county’s mandate has been extended in three subsequent public-health orders, with the current mandate expiring at the end of this month.

Waunakee superintendent Randy Guttenberg said the health department has communicated that it does not intend to issue another order at this time, leaving masking policies for K-12 students and staff at the discretion of local education agencies and those who serve upon them.

“We’re now into November,” WCSD school-board president Joan Ensign said. “We have this order that’s being lifted. Where do we go with the mask mandate?”

Treasurer Jack Heinemann noted that nearly three-quarters of the district had been vaccinated, adding that the number would continue to rise throughout the month of November. Heinemann proposed that the district make masks optional for middle- and high-school students once the county’s health order expired, and on Jan. 1, optional for students in grades K-6 (most of whom became eligible for the Pfizer vaccine on Oct. 29).

“That would give parents enough opportunity to get the vaccine (for their children)” Heinemann said. “And if they want to talk to their pediatrician, or they want more information before they vaccinate their kid, it gives them the opportunity to do that.”

Vice president Mark Hetzel said he liked the spirit of the motion, but didn’t see why the district would treat elementary students differently than those at the upper grade levels. Hetzel noted that actions taken by the board have largely been dictated by local COVID-19 restrictions and public-health recommendations, and amended the motion to make masking optional for all students once the county’s mask mandate expired.

Director Dave Boetcher argued that the district should seek advice from a medical-advisory committee that it had assembled in 2020, and gather expert medical advice, before making any decision related to masking.

“Some of the top experts at the UW live in Waunakee. I think we should bring them back together and we should talk,” Boetcher said. “We have plenty of time between now and when Dane County’s going to lift (its mask mandate) to get that set up.”

Boetcher made an amendment to table both the original motion and Hetzel’s amendment until the board had an opportunity to consult with members of its medical-advisory committee.

Both amendments failed by a 3-4 vote.

School-board members voted in favor of the original motion, which passed by a 5-1 vote with Boetcher casting the dissenting vote and Director Ted Frey abstaining for unstated reasons.

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