Rib Lake keeps school mask rules in place
Board members unwilling to take risks with under two months left of year
Rib Lake students and staff will be required to wear masks through the end of the school year.
With Rib Lake schools having only a single confirmed case of COVID-19 since December and just 39 school days left in the school year, a majority of board members expressed concern about taking a risk which could put spring sports, prom and an in-person graduation ceremony in jeopardy and during a special meeting Monday night voted against a motion to roll back the mask requirements.
“It is not just one thing, it is many layers through the district,” said board member Jackie Mohr citing masks, social distancing and additional sanitizing as all factors in the district successfully stopping the spread of the virus.
She said while she recognized the impact of wearing masks on students she said she feels it hurts kids more not to be in brick and mortar schools. “Last year at this time, those kids didn’t get inperson graduation, they didn’t get prom,” she said, adding that she would hate to change things with just 39 days left of the school year to put those activities in jeopardy for this year’s students.
“I think we owe them to follow through with that decision,” she said. “I think it is premature to get rid of the masks at this point. It is premature we have been doing this for seven months, we have two months left.”
“That is not what everybody wants to hear, but that is how I feel,” Mohr said, echoing the sentiments of the majority of other board members all of whom stated how hard and challenging the decision was.
“I wish it was a black and white decision,” said board member Nicole Scheller.
Board members voted 6 to 1 against a motion by board member Rollie Thums to end the mask requirement. The vote came after more than an hour of input from about a dozen residents and teachers in physical attendance at Rib Lake High School and at least 29 viewing the meeting online. Thums had called for the special meeting in the wake of the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling that Gov. Tony Evers had overstepped his authority in declaring an additional state of emergency and extending the mask mandate.
“I didn’t come here to debate both sides of COVID,” Thums said. “Right now we had a governor who disobeyed the law and did something that was totally illegal and we made a decision based on it,” he said, explaining that his goal was to not take away people’s masks but to give parents, staff and students a choice. “If you want to wear a mask you wear a mask,” he said, noting he felt it was a question of individual rights.
Thums made the motion to eliminate the mask requirement and instead go to having people choosing whether or not they should wear masks. He then amended that motion to have it go into effect on April 12 to allow time for school staff members to get their second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine which is scheduled for April 9. According to state and national vaccine experts, full immunity occurs about two week after the second dose of the vaccine.
Both the amendment and the original motion were voted down. A third motion to exempt the Pre-Kindergarten students from the mask rule was approved unanimously.
That change was made at the request of elementary principal Jon Dallmann noting that the class is a mixture of four and five year olds. Under the previous state mandate, those five and older were required to wear masks in the buildings. He said students would not have to wear the mask and then turn five and have to put it on, but exempting this group it would make it more by grade level and easier to enforce.
The members of the public at Monday’s meeting were divided in their support of keeping the status quo or doing away with the mask rules. Others such as longtime teacher Barb Anderson supported exempting it at the elementary levels but keeping it in place at the higher grades.
Anderson cited her experience during the volleyball season when the entire team was quarantined for close contact despite people wearing masks. “I believe we can take off the masks and work on social distancing,” she said noting that both Taylor County and the Rib Lake district have been doing a phenomenal job of keeping the virus out.
Others echoed the praise for what a good job the district has done so far, but were less optimistic about the impact of ending the mask rules. “My personal opinion is it is a little too soon,” said one parent.
Another countered that she felt it was more risk of spreading with the students and adults constantly adjusting and touching their masks. Sue Thums cited online research she has done, casting doubt on the effectiveness of the masks. She said these researchers are credible despite social media platforms taking them down whenever people attempt to share them. “I don’t think there is conclusive evidence that they do stop the spread,” she said, saying it was time to stop and stand up for kids.
Another parent speaking disagreed saying she believed that masks do matter and that with 39 days left in school it was imperative to keep the status quo of what they have been doing because it has been working.
“To change it up with the short time left would be detrimental,” she said. Resident Jared Peterson noted that the United States was built on individual rights. He said forcing people to wear masks goes against everything this country stands for. He also questioned that if the masks were so serious to be worn if they were being properly disposed of as biohazards materials.
School nurse Judy Marschke supported keeping the mask rule in place despite not being a fan of wearing the masks herself due to breathing issues. “Masks matter,” she said, noting that what the district has been doing with masks, hand washing, closing drinking fountains and sanitizing have worked and she advised against changing them for the last 39 days of school.
After allowing members of the public to voice their concerns, board president Steve Martin said he wanted each member of the school board to have an opportunity to weigh in on the decision.
Martin described himself as a Constitutional conservative and not in favor of government overstepping. However, he said the mask issue presents a difficult decision given how well the school district has been doing in keeping COVID-19 out of the schools. “The fact that we have had so few cases has been remarkable,” he said. “Everybody has attacked this issue, which has been a moving target since it started,” he said, noting the best practices have changed as the virus has become more understood by scientists.
Board member Jason Dananay said his own home was divided on the mask issue. He said that while he leans more toward personal freedom he struggles about what that looks like inside the school building. He said nobody wants to wear a mask, however they have helped. “We have had a good run here and I would ride this out and hopefully put this in a rear view mirror forever,” he said.
Scheller noted the WIAA is not lifting its mask rules and that there are some districts in the state which are just reopening for in-person instruction. She said while the district cannot control what people do outside of school, she said she supported leaving the mask rules in place for continuity and safety in the buildings.
“I am torn,” said board member Stacy Tlusty. She questioned if students would be able to follow social distancing when teachers are already having a challenge enforcing that.
“I believe that health should never be political and that is what this has turned into,” said board member Amanda Treffinger. She said she knows how her middle school boys feel about the masks, but at the same time she said what Rib Lake is doing has been working. “Our numbers are low and are staying low,” she said. She said she would not support changing the mask rules until the teachers who have chosen to get the vaccine are fully vaccinated. About half of the teachers opted to get the vaccine.
“My motion is going downhill fast and there is not much I can do about it,” said Rolly Thums, continuing his push to make masks optional. He said he wanted to see Rib Lake stand on its own feet rather than looking at what other districts or what the state are doing.