Following opposition to the district’s new mask-optional policy, Waunakee school officials have agreed to explore the possibility of masked and unmasked cohorts for K-6 students this fall.
Nearly a dozen parents spoke at the Waunakee school board’s July 12 meeting, expressing their thoughts about the district’s recent decision to remove its mask requirement at all K-12 buildings. Several speakers stated opposition to the policy change, noting that students under the age of 12 are currently ineligible for a COVID-19 vaccine and would be vulnerable to contracting the virus.
“I have three kids in the school system. And we are all vaccinated, with one exception. That’s my 10-year-old who has asthma,” WCSD resident Rebecca Rode said, noting that she had been following the district’s medical advisory committee whose members had expressed differing opinions about allowing K-6 students to go unmasked. “And then the next thing we know, all of a sudden, no masks are required. That’s great for everyone who’s vaccinated. For people who aren’t vaccinated, it’s not okay… I don’t really want my kid who has asthma going into a classroom with kids that may or may not have COVID.”
Pediatrician and internal-medicine doctor Meghan Durst agreed. After the district’s board of education decided last month to rescind its mask mandate, Durst started a petition asking school officials to reconsider that decision for K-6 buildings.
According to Durst, nearly 200 people have already signed the petition.
“We know that the vast majority of positive COVID cases are in the unvaccinated population. We know that masking can help decrease transmission, particularly in the indoor setting,” said Durst. “Everything points to vaccines for kids under 12 being just around the corner. The issue is not political; it is about the safety of our kids. We know being indoors, in close contact, without masks, with an unvaccinated population is a setup for viral spread… I urge you to reconsider.”
WCSD resident Robert McPherson said he had a kindergartner in the district. When the board decided to unilaterally drop its mask requirement, McPherson withdrew her from the district’s Camp Kindergarten program which familiarizes incoming students with the school building they’ll be entering in the fall.
McPherson said his family didn’t have much a of a choice for the fall, however, threatening legal action if his daughter contracted COVID upon returning to school.
“The CDC has made it very clear that if you don’t have other mitigants in place for those that aren’t vaccinated, that you’re not doing enough. And with that,” McPherson said, “we are prepared to sue the school district if our daughter does get a COVID-positive case – if there’s long-term issues, if we have to take off work because we have to quarantine – because the school district is not taking a standard of care they need to take.”
An attorney and parent of two WCSD elementary schoolers, resident Jon Nitti disagreed that masks should be mandatory at the K-6 level.
“As an ardent supporter of your decision last time, I love freedom and think that the government should be limited,” Nitti said, “and that the government shouldn’t dictate to us our individual choices for our children. I guess these people do. I guess they believe that it’s not about freedom under the constitution, and our civil liberties. Ultimately, the parents should make the choice whether or not their kids go to school with a mask.”
Audience member Melissa El Menaouar, a parent who had made comment earlier in the meeting, spoke out after Nitti finished speaking.
“I just want to say, I’m a lawyer as well as a Ph.D. chemist. And none of those things are unconstitutional,” El Menaouar said.
Nitti remarked that he was a lawyer as well, at which point board members were forced to intervene so that the next speaker could submit their comment. President Joan Ensign later thanked both sides for coming to the meeting and sharing their thoughts.
WCSD superintendent Randy Guttenberg then gave an update on the district’s summer-school program.
Guttenberg reported that 49 students had been kept out of class due to symptoms, including three that had to be sent home from the intermediate school, during the first session of summer school. However, no positive COVID-19 cases were ever reported.
Director Ted Frey commended families for keeping their sick children home, stating that it had helped the district mitigate the spread of COVID during the three-week program.
Vice president Mark Hetzel noted the board had received a number of recent correspondences, inquiring about the mask policy that would be in place for fall semester. One suggestion was for the district to provide a “volunteer classroom” for families that wished for their kids to remain masked.
“I don’t know if it’s viable,” Hetzel said. “But is it something we could look into, from a survey perspective, how many parents would be interested and whether we have the capacity to provide such a thing?”
Guttenberg said administration had received similar feedback, and recently had conversations about whether creating two cohorts – one masked, another unmasked – was logistically feasible. Guttenberg noted that class lists were dependent on several variables, including special learning programs, and that he could not guarantee participants would remain masked in those programs.
He cited band and orchestra as an example.
“In order to make the scheduling work, you can’t just say – and I’m speaking very freely here – the trumpets with masks versus the trumpets (without masks). Those are just some examples. But it falls into special ed. It falls into some of our advanced-learning pieces,” Guttenberg said. “It just makes some of those things more challenging… It doesn’t mean it’s not possible, because we certainly can explore that.”
Hetzel noted that the district would not know whether separate sections were possible until it ran a survey to gauge interest in masked-only classrooms, and whether the numbers supported it.
Ensign expressed optimism that there would be enough support to make it work.
“You know, we heard from the public tonight that they have a petition of 200 people. In my mind, that indicates we have the students that could fill up those classrooms,” Ensign said. “I would like to see that option explored. I think we owe it to some of the people who have been reaching out to us.”
Guttenberg said administration would create an exploratory survey that will be sent to parents over the summer, and review the results to see whether cohorting students by masks would be feasible.
“I think the community just has to realize that there’s logistical things that we’ll have to work out in order to do that,” Guttenberg said.
Also at Monday night’s meeting, the school board:
- reviewed and considered the membership of its DEI committee. Board members agreed to reevaluate the committee and its membership after the equity audit it has been working on is presented to board members later this summer. A listening session will likely be held in September, to gather community members’ thoughts about the committee.
More from Monday’s school board meeting can be found at waunakeetribune.com.
- approved an HR-committee recommendation to modify hourly staff employee guidelines, which now requires head custodians and maintenance workers to keep their school-issued phone with them at all times. In return, the committee reported, staff will be allowed to use the phones for personal use.
- approved fund-balance classifications for the 2021-22 fiscal year. According to the motion, the additional funds allocated to the maintenance department on a yearly basis (as a result of the 2014 referendum) will now be committed to Fund 10 rather than Fund 41. Treasurer Jack Heinemann explained it as a strategy to improve the district’s credit rating, as Moody’s does not take Fund 41 into account when gauging the financial health of a school district.
- approved the name ‘Warrior Pitch’ for the district’s new soccer stadium, as well as a budget-committee recommendation to put $30,000 a year toward the eventual replacement of the soccer turf.