Medford eases mask rules for elementary students
Students in grades 4 and under won’t have to wear masks in classroom; staff, others will
After more than 90 minutes of often heated discussion during a special meeting Wednesday night, members of the Medford school board voted 5 to 4 to allow students in the district’s elementary schools to not wear masks in the classrooms.
Under federal rules which govern public transportation, masks must still be worn on the school buses. The board’s vote specifically did not include teachers nor does it change the mask wearing requirements for any grades or programs above fourth grade.
Voting in favor of the change were board president Dave Fleegel and board members Oralee Dittrich, John Zuleger, Cheryl Wibben and Steve Deml. Opposed were DeDe Strama, Brian Hallgren, Paul Dixon and Barb Knight.
Fleegel had called the special meeting in order to clarify the district’s position following the state Supreme Court ruling last week that Gov. Tony Evers had overreached when he extended the state of emergency. The court’s ruling struck down the mask order that had been set to expire on April 5.
During the public comment portion of the meeting, board members heard from five people in attendance who called on the district to end the mask rule entirely including the parent of a child with hearing difficulty who noted the masks made it difficult for those with hearing issues to understand what was being said and eliminated the ability to read lips. The board also heard calls for them to be aware of the variants that are being discovered in the state which are impacting young children in particular. Board members also watched a video that had been prepared by a resident implying there was little actual risk of children contracting COVID-19 here and calling on the board to make a decision based on facts versus emotion. Also during the public comment period, Fleegel presented a personal check to administrator Pat Sullivan to reimburse the district for the cost of the meeting, noting that he did not want to be accused of wasting school district resources by calling the special meeting. He said his intention in calling the meeting was to clarify the district’s mask rule. He said he felt coming out of last month’s board meeting that Sullivan had indicated that if the mask order was no longer in place that the mask requirements would be dropped. Fleegel was prepared to have the board view the entire 20-minute recorded discussion from last month’s meeting.
Sullivan agreed that he made the statement last month, but noted the discussion had been about if the mandate expired without being renewed and was in the context of potential conflicting guidelines from the CDC, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) and the Taylor County Health Department. He said, and Fleegel agreed, that at no point did the Supreme Court case come into last month’s discussion. In the absence of any other direction, Sullivan said he would go with what local and state health department officials advised to be the best option. Fleegel said his intention in raising the topic last month was to give the board the opportunity to provide direction. Instead the board had left it to Sullivan’s discretion and the guidance of health officials.
“It was my mistake in not making a motion and making the board come to a decision,” Fleegel said.
Fleegel said one of the issues is that he does not feel there is guidance from local health officials. He called out county public health director Patty Krug about why the county has not issued its own mask order or issued any statement saying masks should be worn.
Krug said the county has been consistent in calling on people to follow the recommendations from the DHS and the CDC which have emphasized social distancing and wearing masks. Krug noted that only 19.5% of county residents are vaccinated. As of the meeting there were 15 active cases in the county, of those she said 13 were reported on Friday suggesting the possibility of an uptick here.
“We have to look at it as a whole,” Krug said, using the example from a cancer workshop she attended about the need to look at a whole quilt instead of just one part. The mask versus no mask debate is just one part of the whole situation, which is how the community is handling COVID-19 and what steps are being done to protect those who cannot get vaccinated or who are medically vulnerable to the virus. “How do we protect them and take the steps that protect our community,” she said.
Zuleger noted that Portage County issued its own mask order and questioned why didn’t Taylor County do so if they felt that strongly about the need for people to wear masks. “I find it interesting that we haven’t seen that,” Zuleger said.
He noted people recommend a lot of things, but unless there are rules, people ignore them. He gave the example of OSHA requiring work helmets to be worn and having to buckle up while driving, noting that if they were not required, people would not do them.
“We have ridden our butts off to get so that we don’t have to live in fear, and we don’t have to live under this mask,” Zuleger said. “Let’s let these kids get back to living their lives.”
Krug clarified that in Portage County it was the county administrator who made the order, not the health department and that in Taylor County, such an order would have to come from the county board. Zuleger and Fleegel pressed Krug about why she has not asked the county to make that order.
Hallgren responded that doing so would put a target on her back and on the backs of the health department and that doing so would put her life and her family up for people to attack, just as he expects it will do for any who spoke out against repealing the mask rules for the school.
Knight called on the board to exercise “servant leadership” versus “selfish leadership” saying that wearing a mask is the responsible thing to do and is part of being an adult so that those who can’t be vaccinated are protected from getting sick.
“Why on earth would we change course in the most significant health crisis that any of us will go through?” Knight asked. She compared it to learning to drive and how when everyone drives safely, the roads are safer for everyone.
She said she would not support changing the mask rules because she said she feels it boxes in Sullivan and the administration in regard to public health recommendations. She noted that all the school district’s policies are based on state and federal recommendations.
Board member Cheryl Wibben questioned how long they would be dealing with the masks. She said many people in the community will not get vaccinated. She said many of the people she is in contact with view the vaccine as no different than a flu shot. “I have never gotten a flu shot in my life,” Wibben said, noting she has no intention of getting the vaccine. She said it should be people’s choice about what they decided to do for themselves or their children.
Strama said that despite her personal opinions about masks, she felt the school should stay the course for the remainder of the school year when it comes to mask rules.
After more than an hour of discussing the mask topic, Fleegel made the motion to drop having masks worn in the classrooms for grades four and under. Zuleger seconded the motion. “I am really not trying to create more chaos,” Fleegel said in making the motion, also stating he did not feel he was trying to micromanage the issue.
Sullivan asked for clarification that is would be for the students and not include staff, noting he would be asked about this point. Fleegel said the motion is for students, noting the staff is under Sullivan.
Dixon stated that he felt Fleegel’s motion showed a good example of compromise, but still voted against it and supported keeping the mask rules in place through the end of the school year.