Making a choice
Medford board makes masks optional for staff, students at all levels
by Brian Wilson News Editor Medford students, staff and visitors will have the choice to wear or not wear masks provided the number of cases in Taylor County remains low.
On a 6-3 vote during Monday’s regular school board meeting, board members approved a motion by board president Dave Fleegel to make the masks optional through the end of the summer school session provided the seven-day average for cases in the county did not exceed 15 as reported by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services on Tuesday. Board members Paul Dixon, Brian Hallgren and Jodi Nuernberger were opposed to the change with under a month to go in the school year.
The action came three weeks after the board had voted 5-4 to reduce restrictions on students wearing masks in the classroom at the elementary school, and a week after a small number of students at the high school left school and led a community protest and collected hundreds of signatures from community members calling for the mask rules to be optional rather than mandatory. Board member Don Everhard said the district needed to look to the numbers, which as of Friday were at zero cases among students. “I can’t imagine it can be less than zero,” Everhard said of setting a goalpost.
District administrator Pat Sullivan clarified that the number on quarantine as of Friday morning was at zero, he said the district often cannot say how many positive cases there are at a given time. Medford Area Elementary School principal Dan Miller said there were two positive cases in MAES as of Friday.
In making the motion for optional masks, Fleegel said he spent days going over the data to look at what they could use as a metric so that they could respond if there was an uptick in cases in the area.
Fleegel also defended the board’s past actions to this point, noting the board has the authority under the dress code provisions to require masks to be worn. “This school does have the ability to require the student to wear what they see fit,” he said.
Fleegel also responded to people wanting assurances for next school year about masks. He said this could not be promised because they did not know what they would be faced with come fall. “All bets are off for next year people,” he said.
Board member Cheryl Wibben said her decision on the issue was impacted by district medical advisor Dr. Mark Reuter who had emailed his recommendations to the board members saying masks for people not at high risk could be made optional but should go back to mandatory if cases spiked up.
Nuernberger said that Reuter’s recommendations also included universal screening, something Medford schools decided not to implement last fall because of lack of manpower and the logistics involved. Nuernberger also raised concerns that there appeared to be an increasing trend in the data.
It was also noted that overall the number of cases of infectious diseases in the schools was down. Fleegel credited this to people being smarter about what they did when not feeling well and not going out and getting others sick. “We would ask for that process to continue so that we can keep the good work going,” he said.
While the change in mask rules impacts the school day, extracurricular activities and buses are still governed under other rules. Masks must be worn on school buses under federal regulations. Sullivan noted the district has no say over that either way.
Likewise, students competing in sports must abide by WIAA rules as far as when and how masks should be worn or other precautions taken.
Dixon raised the issue of the school’s communicable disease policy and said as he read it with the state health officials continuing to recommend masks the district was obligated to follow the state. Fleegel disagreed and said there have been no laws or orders put in place, only recommendations.
Taylor County health director Patty Krug, noted that the Department of Public Instruction, the state body that oversees school districts had sent out guidance recommending masks continue to be worn. Sullivan also read an email from the district’s liability insurance broker Brian Hess stating that not having a masking policy could leave the school district open to litigation.
Everhard made a motion to end debate and proceed with a vote. That motion passed 7-2 with Hallgren and Nuernberger voting no. The board then voted on Fleegel’s motion to make masks optional, approving that 6-3.
The board’s discussion followed more than an hour of public comment from parents, students and community members both opposed to and in support of the mask requirement.
Jessica Peterson spoke on behalf of a group of community members urging the district to keep the mask rules in place. “It does not make sense to remove mitigation at this time with under five weeks left of the school year,” she said, noting the most common variant of COVID-19 in Wisconsin is the UK variant which has a greater impact on those under 18 years old. Peterson called on the district to follow the guidance of Krug and maintain the masks. She said those who support mask requirements feel they have been forgotten. She cited the saying “your freedom ends when your fist hits my face” saying that COVID has hit their faces. She also asked the board members to look out the board meeting room window where a group of about 25 area residents were gathered watching a live stream of the meeting showing their support for keeping mask rules in place.
Kristi Kohn spoke in favor of making the masks optional. She noted the amount of nonverbal communication that takes place and said that people feel uneasy when they cannot read faces. She cited other examples of local and state health regulations which are considered as recommendations and not enforced by the school and said masks should be included in them.
Sophomore Mara Denzine said that since being forced to wear masks, school has stopped being fun for her and that she has trouble with focusing. “I am sick of feeling like I can’t breathe,” she said.
Her father, Clinton Denzine of Stratford admitted that the masks will stop some things. “I don’t believe it stops everything,” he said. He also raised concerns about it restricting oxygen flow to people and gave the result of his own at home experiments which he said showed a reduction the longer he wore a mask. He also spoke about students seeing school leaders in the community and elsewhere not wearing masks, but enforcing masks on students. “These children are not stupid,” he said.
Stacy Olson said her children come home with headaches, anxiety and depression she says is due to wearing masks. “The physical and emotional burden on these students is insane,” she said, noting there are many that did not go out for sports or extracurricular activities due to masks. Student Ethan Motte said the students would not be bullying anyone about wearing masks, but simply wanted their own choice. He said the masks make learning more difficult and worried about the longterm negative consequences.
Junior Sara Hamm described the emotional stress due to the mask as being “insane.” “I shouldn’t have to deal with this as a 17-year-old,” she said. Hamm was one of the organizers of the student walkout held April 16.
Third grader McKenzie Smith spoke in support of the masks saying that she gets that people do not like wearing masks, but said that they should be required so that her mother, who is a teacher, can come back and feel safe at work. She said her mother has cancer and because of the treatment does not have a strong immune system and is unable to be vaccinated. She said with only five more weeks to school people should continue to wear the masks.
“Our freedom does not end where your fear begins,” said Nikkita Muehlbauer, stating her opposition to the mask requirement. She reiterated her comments from the April 7 meeting about her family’s experience with COVID-19 and quarantining.
Local business owner and parent Darla Schulz said if people want to wear a mask they should wear one, but said she felt it was directly contributing to her students’ getting failing grades. She also blasted the district’s virtual option as not being functional or useful for the students.
“If this is not mandated by our government it is a lifestyle choice,” said parent Ann Mahner, noting that pupil discrimination is prohibited based on creed, which she defined as someone’s beliefs. She suggested the district was potentially breaking the law by mandating the masks be worn and said that there were those in the community willing to go to court over this.
Student Christopher Hughes complained about the fine he received for being among the students who walked out objecting to the punishment not including any steps but going right to giving a fine. He said the mask mandate has negatively affected his body and called on the board to end the mask requirement.
Sophomore Jedrae Kohn compared forcing people to wear masks to cutting a hole in your boat and putting a band aid on it to fix it. He said in America there should be a right to choose.
While most of the comments at the meeting were about the mask rules, residents Fred Ebert and Justin Olson addressed the board about the recent failed referendum attempt. Ebert questioned why the district would ask for more square footage if they did not have the ability to maintain what they have within their budget. “You have lost our trust,” he said, noting the voters felt they were being looked down on when the district said it would seek to provide more education about the referendum after it failed last fall. He suggested the board look at cutting pet projects and special classes to find the money to make needed maintenance repairs.
Olson said the people have spoken clearly that the district needed to live within their means.
In addition to the other comments, Barb Krug of Krug Bus Service urged the district to not change the school calendar. The calendar for next year had been placed on the agenda by Hallgren. Later in the meeting, when discussion came to that point, Hallgren withdrew his request leaving the calendar unchanged for next year.