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Colby K-12 stays with mask rules

Colby K-12 stays with mask rules Colby K-12 stays with mask rules

4th-12th to go virtualonly for two weeks after Thanksgiving break

For about an hour on Monday, parents in the Colby School District tried to convince the school board to loosen the district’s mask mandate for students and to avoid all-virtual classes if possible.

However, in the end, the board voted to keep the mask rules intact and to have all students in grades fourth through 12th attend classes online during the two weeks after Thanksgiving break. All sports competitions, but not practices, were also cancelled through Dec. 11.

The board’s actions followed the recommendations of the district’s administrators, who met before Monday’s meeting to discuss the district’s response to a surge in COVID-19 cases.

As of Monday, 260 students and 22 staff members were quarantined at home because they had come into close contact with someone who tested positive. In addition, nine students and four faculty members currently have active cases of COVID-19 — adding to a total of 52 cases in the district since Sept. 1.

Still, it was clear from Monday’s public comment period that many parents and their kids are bristling under a masking policy that only offers exemptions for those who can provide a doctor’s note. Parents also expressed concerns about returning to an all-virtual learning format, pleading with the board to keep inperson instruction if at all possible.

A total of 12 parents and one teacher addressed the board, and the comments were about evenly split between the mask rules and online instruction.

On the issue of virtual learning, several parents shared stories about their kids struggling to stay caught up with their classes when trying to learning online.

Parent Chris Podevels said students who have been forced to attend classes from home because of quarantines don’t seem to be getting the attention they Colby

need, especially when it comes to getting timely responses from teachers. She worried this would continue during the twoweek period after Thanksgiving.

“Unless we have a good plan in place, I think the kids really do need to be at school to make sure they have everything they need,” she said.

Trish Smith echoed these concerns, saying kids need in-person interactions with their classmates and direct assistance from their teachers. She said any period of virtual learning should be as short as possible.

“When my kids are home, they don’t do as well as they do back in school, and they can’t wait to go back to school,” she said.

Lony Oestreich urged the board to consider all the ways working families rely on the schools — not just for classes, but for meals and “eight hours of safety.”

“Please exhaust every option you have, every ability you have to keep these kids going in this building,” he said.

Matt Oehmichen mentioned falling mortality rates and increasing recovery rates among COVID patients when asking the board to reconsider the two-week shutdown after Thanksgiving. He said data from other states and Western European countries show that schools are not a cause of outbreaks.

“There has not been one place, one district, one state that says full virtual learning is a slam dunk — that it is widely successful,” he said.

Oehmichen also pointed out that not one person between the ages of 0 and 19 has died from COVID-19 in Wisconsin, and that many people are suffering from “COVID fatigue.”

“So many people are just getting mentally worn down to their core, that it’s getting harder and harder to go through the nuances of trying to find normalcy during all of this,” he said.

One parent, however, expressed support for going to all-virtual instruction for two weeks after Thanksgiving so that any new infections resulting from family gatherings have a chance to run their course before the schools are reopened.

Even with the struggles of online classes, Amanda Haupt said the fact that Clark County has reported over 1,200 new COVID cases just in the past month makes her worry about the schools’ ability to handle the case loads.

“I cannot imagine putting my child back into school after the Thanksgiving break,” she said.

Opposition to mask mandate

The district’s mask policy — which was tightened as of Oct. 26 so that exceptions are only allowed for those with approved medical exemptions — came under fire at Monday’s meeting.

Brianna Sheer was one of several parents who mentioned silver iron mesh masks as an alternative to the paper and cloth masks people are required to wear.

“We looked into it a lot, and we found it’s working really well, but since then, I’ve been made aware that in the high school those masks are not allowed,” she said.

Jessica Ertl asked the board to make mask-wearing optional or at least allow the wearing of silver ion masks. She questioned why students are required to wear masks while exercising in gym class. She said her daughter, a crosscountry athlete, hyperventilated while running with a mask on in class.

Ertl pointed out that the World Health Organization says people should not wear a mask while exercising, as it can make breathing more difficult and cause the masks to become wet and prone to bacterial build-up.

Gym teacher Mary Beth Guy later attempted to clarify the situation involving Ertl’s daughter, making it clear that the student was not admonished for taking her mask off while trying to catch her breath. In general, Guy said she tries to accommodate students who struggle wearing masks by letting them take more breaks and pull their masks away from their faces.

“If they do need to stop running, it’s totally understandable if they do that,” she said.

Ertl noted that Colby’s football players did not wear masks during games, and were regularly exposing themselves to students from other school districts.

“How about we think about shutting sports down?” she asked. “My kids do sports, but our world doesn’t revolve around it. What’s more important, education or sports?”

Beth Kosik said she was proud of the school district at the beginning of the year for allowing parents to choose whether their students wore masks or not. Although she believes in the dangers of COVID-19, she questions why people are made to wear masks despite conflicting information of their effectiveness.

“The research I’ve done has only strengthened my belief that this is more for political compliance,” she said. “I don’t know why, but if they can force you to force us to wear a mask, where will it end? Will we be forced to take the vaccination?”

Phil Carlson, a chiropractor whose kids go to Abbotsford schools, said the research is “all over the place” on masks and urged the board to consider all the available data before making decisions.

Carlson also noted that COVID-19 tests are not 100 percent accurate.

“So we have to be careful that we don’t turn into alarmists and get our crowds more nervous than what they already are,” he said.

Parents Renee Liedberg and Kim Meyer, who spoke to the board last month about their opposition to the mask mandate, repeated their concerns about the possible negative health effects of forcing students to wear mask.

Meyer, a nurse for 30 years, said a lot of people who wear masks still get COVID, and she thinks it’s unfair that her daughter has to choose between wearing a mask or staying at home away from her friends.

“I don’t believe we need to be wearing masks unless we choose to wear masks or if we have an immune compromised system,”she said.

Teachers express support

Monday’s agenda packet for board members included 50 pages of material related to the mask mandate, both for and against the use of face coverings to prevent COVID-19. Emails of support from 11 teachers were included to show that staff appreciated the board’s decision to require masks as a safety precaution.

“I feel a lot safer requiring everyone to wear masks especially now when COVID numbers are extremely high in Central Wisconsin,” wrote middle school teacher Tamara McClellan.

Another teacher said she has an autoimmune disorder and says she does everything she can outside of work to keep herself protected from the coronavirus.

“I know it’s a pain but definitely worth the hassle for the rewards,” Jessica Sweda wrote.

First-grade teacher Kris Woik said there is no way for students to socially distance in school, so she strongly supports the mask mandate.

“I have not heard one of my children complain about wearing a mask this year and they are very compliant because they want the school to stay open!” she wrote.

The board decides

Compared to the public comment period, the board’s discussion about the mask mandate and two-week virtual learning period was relatively short, about 20 minutes total.

Board member Cheryl Ploeckelman said masks may not be perfect, but many doctors believe they are the best way to stop the spread of COVID-19.

“If our teachers are sick, we can’t have school,” she said.

Board member Dave Decker agreed with Ploeckelman.

“I’m willing to do whatever it takes to keep our kids in school, and if the mask mandate is part of that, that’s where I’m at,” he said.

Board member Jean Schmitt said she would prefer to give parents the option of exempting their kids from the mask mandate, but she eventually voted to keep the rules the same.

“I’m doing it for the greater good,” she said after casting her vote.

The two-week virtual learning period after Thanksgiving was also approved with little debate.

Superintendent Steve Kolden said administrators agree that in-person instruction is better than online, but they want the two-week period after Thanksgiving to prevent a spike in COVID cases due to holiday or hunting gatherings.

Students in pre-kindergarten through third will continue to attend school four days a week during this period. Kolden noted that the elementary is reopening this Thursday after a two-week COVIDrelated shutdown. Kolden said it’s important that middle and high school students will return to in-person classes a week and a half before Christmas break.

“We did not want to extend that virtual break all the way to after Christmas because we do believe we need to touch base with our students, especially some of our middle and high school kids who do not respond to virtual well,” he said.

ANOTHER SIDE - Parent Amanda Haupt expresses concerns about having students in school while new cases of COVID-19 are rising.