Masking debate continues in Howard-Suamico
By Lea Kopke
SUAMICO – Dozens of parents and community members filled the lobby of the Howard-Suamico School District’s administrative office building at 5 p.m. Monday, May 17.
The crowd, made up mostly of a group of parents advocating for masks to be optional in the schools, was waiting to sign up to speak during the district’s school board meeting two hours later.
On May 12, Superintendent Damian LaCroix released a COVID-19 update regarding the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines about fully vaccinated people no longer needing to wear a mask or physically distance.
LaCroix’s update stated masks would be required for all staff, students and visitors for both the remainder of the 2020-21 school year and the first session of the district’s summer school program.
In the update, he said a decision has not been made regarding the summer school’s second session or the 2021-22 school year.
Justin Schmidtka, a Howard resident, said roughly 50 sets of parents who are against masking were present at the meeting after a campaign on social media encouraged upset parents to attend.
Because so many attended, only the night’s speakers were present in the boardroom, while the others were let into Bay Port High School’s auditorium to attend remotely.
During the community input portion of the meeting, 18 speakers voiced their opinions: two in support of continuing masking through the end of the school year, and 16 against.
At the end of the speaking portion, board member Garry Sievert also read segments from 12 emails the board received.
The emails, from district parents and staff, contained an even mixture of voices for and against masking.
Julia Geiser, a district parent and Meadowbrook Elementary School teacher, shared a statement of support to the school board signed by 116 members of the community.
The statement said district employees greatly appreciate the board and administrator’s “commitment to mitigation strategies supporting the safety of staff, students and our community.”
Many of those against required masking said they believed the district’s decisions this year were violating Executive Limitation EL-3 Treatment of the Public and Executive Limitation EL-10 Learning Environment policies.
Kathie Ouellette, a Suamico parent, said she felt required masking went against EL-10, which states the superintendent shall not “allow an environment that is unsupportive or demeaning.”
Ouellette, and several other parents, said their children felt they could not go to school without a mask on – even if it was because of medical reasons – out of a fear of being shunned.
“What do you say to your child if they tell you, ‘They’ll hate me if I don’t wear a mask?’” she said.
Later on during the meeting, the school board voted on the 2019-20 EL-3 and EL-10 policy monitoring reports.
The board used the reports to rate how well it followed executive limitations during the 2019-20 school year.
Board member Vanessa Moran argued the two reports should be passed at a level two: in partial compliance.
EL-3 was passed 6-1 to be approved in full compliance. EL-10 was passed 5-1 (with one abstain), also in full compliance.
Jesse Stukenberg, a nurse and parent from Suamico, said she was concerned about the possibility of unvaccinated students being required to wear masks in the fall while vaccinated students could go without.
Stukenberg said the masks would give away private health information – namely a student’s vaccination status – and be a form of segregation and discrimination.
“If you know history, perhaps you remember another symbol,” she said. “I’m getting philosophical here, but remember the Star of David? After all, Goebbels propaganda machine said that German people could become ill just by sitting next to a Jewish person. Now, CNN has actually said we should shun those of us who aren’t going to get this vaccine.”
Many parents also said they felt the school board was not taking the public’s opinion into consideration in its decision-making.
Tony Moon, a Howard parent, said he asked the district to make a decision based on a survey of parents.
Moon demanded this survey be sent out by the last day of school June 9.
Later that night, during LaCroix’s regular COVID-19 update, he reassured parents the district had already planned to send out a survey.
However, he said it would touch on more than just masks and not be released until the summer.
Stukenberg said she also felt the district was not letting parents have enough say in the decision-making process.
Though she knows the district’s Medical Health Advisory Team is following CDC guidelines, she said she was worried the team wasn’t taking the opinions of the community into consideration.
“Who’s advocating for the kids? Where’s their voice? Where’s the voice of the parent?” she said.
During LaCroix’s COVID-19 update, he said almost every member of the advisory team is a parent of a district student.
The team is made up of local health care leaders, district administrators and school board members and a student representative.
LaCroix said he hoped the district would have a final answer regarding masking by early July.
He said the decision will be based on recommendations from the CDC and the health advisory team.
LaCroix said he believes, in the end, the two sides need to support each other as a community.
He then shared a picture of a poster from the Heidi Hussli memorial, a Bay Port teacher who died from COVID-19, which featured a saying Hussli was known for using.
“Her life mantra was ‘Bring humanity back.’ And that’s what I’d encourage all of us tonight to embrace,” he said. “Not only to honor her, but because it’s the right thing to do.”
Mike Juech, assistant superintendent of operations, shared an update on referendum projects.
Juech said the projects, which include updates to Forest Glen and Suamico Elementary schools and Bay View Middle School, are nearing the end of schematic design phases.
After next week’s vision meetings wrap up, he said the projects could soon move on to the next design phase, a more detailed draft of plans.
Juech then introduced two members of Miron Construction, owner David Voss and client executive Andre Lorenzen.
The pair shared renderings of what the construction process might look like, including the paths buses and cars could take to avoid traffic jams throughout the project’s phases.
“I believe this will be a powerful communication tool in terms of how we explain routing,” Juech said.