SDR school board votes for ‘masks optional’ policy
School district, public health look to keep kids safe and in class
By Eileen Persike
The new school year is approaching and school districts and public health officials are once again grappling with how to manage COVID-19 and keep students in school.
“The national, state, local health departments, the American Academy of Pediatrics, medical education researchers all are recommending masking indoors if your community transmission is high and masking for school,” said Oneida County Health Department (OCHD) Director Linda Conlon. “All of the medical fields are in agreement that masking is one of the strategies that would be beneficial for schools to implement as a layered approach.”
However, following a lengthy public comment period and discussion by board members at the Aug. 16 school board meeting, the board voted to adopt a plan that makes masking optional and gives the district the right to make changes as it deems necessary.
In a media briefing Aug. 12,. Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk warmed that what is happening in Florida right now could happen in Wisconsin. The disease transmission level in Oneida County rose from moderate to significant to high in a matter of weeks.
“Wisconsin has a similar vaccination rate to Florida,” Willems Van Dijk said. “COVID-19 cases are reaching an all-time high and their health care systems are overwhelmed. We find ourselves in a situation we’d hoped was in the past.”
Rhinelander Superintendent Eric Burke said he understands and respects the health department’s recommendation.
“Saying we should do what the health department says makes sense, but when you apply it to real life, it’s not as easy as that,” Burke said. “Especially in a school setting. This is all day, every hour. We want to do the right thing.”
The Hodag Preparedness Plan makes face coverings optional for all staff, students and visitors in SDR buildings.
“We’re cautious about making the requirement because of what we saw last year with masking being required, especially at the end of the year with behaviors that happened at all levels, especially upper elementary, middle and high school,” Burke said. “There were a lot of issues with non-compliance. There are great concerns from our building leaders that this could even be worse because of all that’s going on in our world today – carries over to the school. So we’re trying to balance safety and education.”
Conlon, who is part of the SDR Health Advisory Committee, maintains that by not requiring masking at the start of the school year school districts would be reacting to numbers rather than preventing the spread of COVID-19. However, she said she understands, “there is a lot of turmoil with masking,” and school districts have to make decisions on what they feel is the safest for their students.
“We are trying to do our best, and we are all trying to be good partners and understand where each partner is coming from and where their professional opinion arises from and trying to be respectful of everyone’s opinions and how we move forward,” Conlon said. “And I think that is key to us continuing to work together.
Burk also stressed that school administrators are trying to do the right thing for everyone, but what that is at this point in time, is not clear.
“Sometimes,” Burke said, “the easy answer isn’t the best answer.”