Rib Lake students, staff will wear masks through end of school year
Both sides of the mask debate came away with a win from Monday’s special meeting of the Rib Lake School Board.
Board members voted 4-3 against a motion to make masks optional under a plan mirrored on one approved in Medford Area Public School District last week. With the vote, masks will remain mandatory in the school building through the end of the school year.
“In 19 days a lot can happen in that time and it scares me a lot,” said Stacey Tlusty who was acting board president for the meeting. Tlusty cited the 19 school days remaining in the year and need to ensure that events such as graduation, prom and end of year concerts are able to take place this year. She expressed concern that changing the precautions they are taking now could put those things in jeopardy if there was an outbreak that caused quarantines.
While a majority of board members favored keeping the mask rules in place for the remainder of the school year, when it comes to summer school they all favored looser rules.
Board members voted unanimously to allow masks to be optional during the summer school session conditional on Taylor County’s COVID-19 positivity rate remaining under 5%. As of Monday the rate for Taylor County is at 1.8% and in the low category, but health officials note it is climbing. School nurse Judy Le-Master had passed along Taylor County Public Health’s Suggestion for a metric to use.
According to board member Jackie Mohr, the major difference between the regular school year and summer school is summer school is 100% optional for both the students and the staff working it.
The board action came after an hour of public input from the approximately 30 people in attendance. This is the third time, the board has addressed the mask issue since the governor’s mask mandate was overturned by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in late March. In that decision, the court specifically did not rule on if masks were effective or needed, but only found the governor exceeded his authority in extending the order to wear them.
While several people spoke in support of making the masks optional rather than required, others spoke out in favor of keeping the rule in place.
Students Nayeli and Julietta Marschke said they felt the mask rules should remain. “I feel we all should wear masks,” Nayeli said, citing them as a way to prevent the spread of the COVID-19. They also noted that in the 7th grade there is a student sick now and a number of classmates under quarantine.
Resident Peter Anderson said he did not come to argue with the board, but wanted to know what research they have done since the last meeting in regard to the schools that have dropped the mask rules.
LeMaster said she reached out to three different schools in rural counties who had dropped their mask requirements when the governor’s order ended. She said one of the schools did not want to talk with her and the two that did said about 10% of the high school students in one of the schools she talked to continued to wear the masks right away but that percentage had gone down to 5% by the end of April. She noted that both schools had expressed difficulty with it, with one of the major concerns being bullying of those who chose to continue to wear masks. She said one of the biggest challenges in both those schools was in getting students to remember to socially distance and said they had to do a lot of education and monitoring.
“Obviously the kids love not wearing masks,” LeMaster said, but on the flip side the number of cases are going back up.
District administrator Rick Cardey said it has been difficult to talk with other schools about their experiences with COVID-19 because of the amount of politics around it with communities split over whether to mask or not.
Resident Mindy Martin urged the board to drop the mask rule. She expressed concern that keeping the mask rules in place now could open the door to other rules being imposed on families and setting precedents on taking away rights. She said she is working to teach her children to be “strong, bold, courageous and yet be wise,” she said.
Anderson said people throttled things up in a hurry last spring to deal with the pandemic. “It showed that people want to be responsible to this,” he said, noting that just as there were ways to throttle up, he felt there needed to be ways to throttle things down to get back to a normal life. He said the board needed to come up with firm policies, firm plans and firm beliefs.
He went on to say that if the district were to decide to keep the masks in place, they should be going at it “100% right” by requiring medical grade masks that are changed multiple times a day. In the end he said he favored making the mask rules optional and giving people a choice as to if they should wear them. He also said they need to work to reintegrate the community into the school, noting that because of the masks he doesn’t know what his children’s elementary school teachers even look like.
One parent expressed strong opposition to masks and said her child’s medical condition has gotten worse because he has had to wear them. She said it has helped somewhat since she has gotten a medical waiver for him. She said she did not feel right in handing out masks for students describing them as medical devices. “I feel like I am doing something illegal when I hand out masks,” she said.
District resident Dr. Cole Marschke said he has seen a resurgence of cases. “I have seen entire families wiped out,” he said, noting the increase in younger people getting the virus. “It is a nasty disease,” Marschke said, noting that he did not care what Medford or Gilman did, but that Rib Lake must do what is best for here.
“As far as the rhetoric about fear of masks, my children have a fear of COVID,” he said. He urged the board to keep the mask rules in place through the end of the school year and then spend the summer looking ahead to what they should do next fall based on what is going on.
Following the public comment, the board took up the discussion of the mask issue with Rollie Thums making a motion to follow the Medford school district’s plan to make masks optional conditional on the seven day rolling average of cases staying under 15 countywide. He said he would like to have a benchmark to know if they should relax or go into a more strict rule.
Board member Nicole Glenzer who recently joined the board replacing former member Steve Martin, noted that whatever they do will not make everyone happy, but said she favored making the masks optional.
Board member Jason Dananay said he agreed with the idea of a metric, but said he did not feel comfortable with setting it that night.
“When are you going to have an opinion?” asked Thums. “We can talk and talk and talk to next fall.”
Dananey noted that the last meeting was only two weeks ago.
Board member Nicole Scheller said that she comes at it from a healthcare perspective and has done the 14-hour shifts in ICU. She said she would personally not want to wear the masks, but that they are the guidance coming from the CDC especially in the light of the increased rates of COVID. She said the school needs to be a safe place for students and teachers to be.
Tlusty supported making it through the end of the school year and then working on building and getting better after that. Tlusty also raised concern about the additional workload of checking metrics and getting information out, on top of the already increased workload district staff are under this year.
Board member Amanda Treffinger said students also have responsibility in their actions to continue to social distance as a way to prevent the spread and to avoid being placed in quarantine. In the end, Thums, Glenzer and Treffinger voted in favor of making masks optional through the end of the school year and Tlusty, Mohr, Dananay and Scheller opposed.
While the board was divided on requiring masks through the end of the school year, they were more supportive of making them optional during summer school.
With summer school signup set to begin, Cardey brought the health protocols to the board for approval. He said he did not feel it was his place to set the protocols and wanted direction from the board.
While there was broad agreement for a more relaxed mask rule for the summer, Tlusty suggested they may want to consider masks being required in the weight room or other spaces where social distancing is not available. There was also discussion about what metric should be used if they picked one.
Mohr said that she takes her responsibility as a school board member seriously and feels that students’ lives are in their hands. She said if something happened that could have been prevented she would feel partly to blame. “I want to do my best to make decisions to keep people safe,” she said.
Elementary principal Jon Dallmann said there needed to be consideration for conditions and temperatures in the gyms and elsewhere in the buildings when it came to doing the sports activities during summer school.
Dananay suggested they could set it at being optional, but leave it up to their regular meeting on May 13 to decide what a metric may be. Cardey said, they would bring forward some options by then.
Resident Ruth Nelson said she completely understood about weighing in to protect kids, but noted there was a 50/50 split in people’s attitudes toward masks. She said in the end, the board needed to offer something in order to appease everyone.
In the end, board members voted to adopt the protocols and go with the recommendation from local health officials to use the positivity rate as a metric with if it stays within the low level below 5% masks would be optional, but if it went above that for the county, masks would be made mandatory. This change is spe-