Posted on

Credit is due

For the past several months, members of the Colby School Board have sat and listened while a steady stream of parents have come before them to complain about the district’s mask mandate. The parents have been persistent in their pleas for allowing some leeway, but board members have stood their ground, and for that, we applaud them.

Since COVID-19 arrived in this area last March, life has not been easy for anyone. Whether you’re a medical worker, a nursing home resident, business owner or just an ordinary citizen, you’ve seen your life altered in ways you never thought possible. Elected officials at all levels of government, along with public health workers, often take the brunt of the pent-up frustration we’re all feeling.

School board members are in a particularly tough spot, trying to protect the health of their students and staff while dealing with parents who are fed up the struggles of online learning, constant quarantines and, yes, mask mandates. It is often pointed out that school-age children are at a particularly low risk when it comes to developing severe COVID symptoms, but that ignores the fact that they can still spread the virus to people who are at much higher risk of serious illness or death.

Masks can be an effective way to prevent this type of spread from happening. That is the position the Colby School Board it taking, based on recommendations by the Clark County Health Department, the Wisconsin Department of Services and the CDC. Sure, there are studies here and there that seem to contradict this conclusion, but the prevailing belief among most health experts is that wearing masks is worth it when comes to slowing the spread of this deadly pandemic.

We don’t mean to completely dismiss the concerns raised by parents who have spoken passionately about their objections to the mask mandate. Once the district started requiring a medical exemption signed by a doctor, parents lost the power to say whether their children had to cover their faces for eight or more hours a day. That is a reduction in their parental rights.

But, unfortunately, it is a necessary one. As school board president Bill Tesmer pointed out on Monday, the board is responsible for the education of over 1,000 students and for providing a safe working environment for over 100 staff members. Simply put, the needs of the many outweigh the concerns of a few — even if those concerns are deeply held.

Parents who don’t want their kids forced to wear masks do have options. Since the start of the school year, they have been able to opt for virtual learning at home, where their students would not have to wear a mask. As was pointed out at Monday’s meeting, they can also take the more extreme measure of open-enrolling their students into a district that allows parental waivers for the mask mandate.

The Abbotsford School District offers the parental waiver option, and it may be worth it for administrators and board members from both districts to compare notes on how each system is working. It’s important to point out that the Colby School Board has also taken a step that Abbotsford’s board refused to do — switching back to five days a week of in-person instruction. This was done after Colby parents repeatedly asked for their kids to be in school for five full days.

By doing that, though, Colby’s board members generated concerns from several teachers and other staff members. A fifth-grade teacher wrote a letter to the board outlining all the ways in which bringing students back into the buildings on Wednesdays would make their already-hectic schedules more difficult. Still, the district is forging ahead with a five-day week as of next Monday. Abbotsford’s board, after hearing from teachers and others, stuck with four days.

This is the balancing act that must be performed by school board members in the age of COVID. It’s not easy, and there’s no way to make everyone happy. But they deserve credit for making tough decisions.

The Tribune-Phonograph editorial board consists of publisher Kris O’Leary and editor Kevin O’Brien