Community sounds off at Howard-Suamico meeting
By Ben Rodgers
SUAMICO – People held signs outside urging the Howard-Suamico School District to adhere to gating criteria when reopening schools, but inside the school board was mostly opposed to waiting around.
The Monday, Nov. 16, school board meeting also saw seven people speak, mostly in favor of reopening schools now, numerous comments from people not in attendance, mostly wanting schools to stay closed until the pandemic is more under control.
“Three weeks after schools started, I spent five days in the ICU with COVID,” said Audrey Nowak, Bay Port orchestra teacher. “I suffered long-term effects. I can catch it again. I have serious doubts I would survive a second round, but I am only one story.”
Travis Veraghen, a district parent and husband of district staff member, presented the board with a petition with more than 1,100 signatures, of which he said contains signatures from people “most of which” are from the district.
“It is important to consider this virus is not going away anytime soon, and shutting down our schools has not had an impact on community spread. It has, however, had an impact on our students,” Veraghen said.
Bernadette Donovan, a speech pathologist at Forest Glen Elementary School, said this area is full of people who don’t follow recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the state and county health departments, and will likely have large gatherings over the holidays.
“When the positivity rate is 33.5 percent, and we are clearly in the worst stage of this pandemic we’ve been in so far, it is difficult for me to understand why this would be the time to send students and staff back to school,” Donovan said.
Ashley Rubright, a Bay Port ninth-grader, fought back tears as she pleaded for a return to in-person instruction.
“Your job is not to worry about my health,” she told the board. “Your job is, according to your mission, to develop all students’ full academic potential and social emotional growth. Let my parents worry about my health.”
Her mother, Amy Rubright, followed her daughter’s plea, saying she is more concerned about a student with “a mental illness” harming her daughter than COVID-19.
“I will not teach my children to be afraid of a virus with a 99.4 percent survival rate,” she said.
Sixty people also submitted comments virtually, and the board read the names to acknowledge the receipt of their comments, but did not read the comments out loud.
The community fracas comes on the heels of Superintendent Damian LaCroix writing a letter to district parents last week, in which he announced plans to ramp up in-person learning from now until Jan. 4, at which point students in the high school will be back in-person in an unannounced capacity.
The plan also included the start of winter sports practice Nov. 16.
“I believe we all generally want the same thing,” LaCroix said. “We want healthy students, safe staff, families to feel supported and the best educational opportunities for children in this community.”
The board also heard from Dr. James Ebben, family medical consultant with Bellin Health and medical consultant for the Green Bay Packers, who said he was in favor of students returning.
“Our ability to combat COVID really doesn’t involve testing, it involves taking personal responsibility, and across the street that’s what we learned,” Ebben said. “We had seven players that came into camp 90 days ago with COVID, and our biggest task was communicating and educating players that if they want to play this season, they need to play by the rules.”
Dr. Chris Woleske, president and CEO of Bellin, agreed that to get the virus under control, the community needs to come together.
“When it all started, we all thought a couple of weeks, then a couple of months, now some people say a couple of years, but we’re a strong community and we can do this,” Woleske said. “But to Dr. Ebben’s point, it isn’t just the school board and the faculty and staff, the parents have to do this, the kids have to do this. We all have to exercise personal accountability and responsibility.”
Woleske said simple changes by community members not in the schools can help the process.
“If you give up the sleepovers and birthday parties and get togethers, and wear masks and social distance outside of school, the chances the school can be successful are greatly enhanced,” she said.
Board member Jason Potts said the message from administration and the Bellin employees who presented at the meeting is different than what he’s heard in the past.
“I’m curious why we aren’t hearing the perspectives from any of the other experts you’ve consulted with after the previous board meetings,” Potts asked LaCroix. “Through the course of this pandemic, the message we were getting from you is very different from what we’re hearing now.”
Potts was also the lone board member to speak against opening schools, citing two policies regarding student and staff safety set by the board for administration to use when formulating how the district is run.
“(It) does not say that we will do what the public asks or demands,” Potts said of a policy. “That’s not our charge, and Damian, that is not your charge either.”
Board member Vanessa Moran said she is in favor of letting students back with one caveat.
“If we’re going to give our families and students a choice, the district has to allow the choice for staff as well,” she said. “No one should have to choose between their job and their life.”
Mark Smith, deputy superintendent, said there is already a process in place to determine teacher leave due to fears about COVID-19, if they meet with the human resources department and the reason is deemed appropriate.
Board president Teresa Ford said the district relies on its staff, and staff should be treated appropriately.
“The staff is never viewed as a logistical commodity, and I don’t think anybody sitting here at this table believes that,” Ford said. “They are people that we rely on, we can’t do any of this without them. For people to suggest ‘Just tell them to do their jobs,’ or just suggest we’ll hire different teachers or get different teachers, that treats them like a commodity.”
LaCroix said he will review the opinions of the board, the community, and staff before sending out another update later this week.