By Heather Graves
GREEN BAY – Green Bay’s youngest students will be required to wear a mask indoors when they head back to school this September.
At a special board meeting July 26, the school board loosened the face-covering requirement for seventh- and eighth-grade students but stuck to its requirement for the district’s youngest students – those not yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.
The decision came as dozens of parents, students and community members filled the boardroom carrying signs and wearing T-shirts supporting optional masks.
Board President Eric Vanden Heuvel had to address the crowd multiple times asking them to refrain from shouting and disrupting the board discussion.
“We ask the audience to remain listeners for our discussion,” Vanden Heuvel said. “If we are unable to do our business during this meeting because of the actions of the crowd, we will have to take a recess and will conduct the meeting virtually.”
Nearly an hour into the meeting, Vanden Heuvel gave a final warning to the crowd – his fourth of the evening.
“This is going to be the last time,” he said. “People up here are saying things that not everyone agrees with. I want to continue the meeting in this format, please allow us to do that.”
It took three motions to get one passed.
The first called for optional masks districtwide.
It failed 1-6 with only Vanden Heuvel in favor.
The second, which would have required all unvaccinated individuals to wear a mask, failed 2-5 with Vanden Heuvel and Trustee Andrew Becker in favor.
The final motion, which passed 5-2 with Trustees Laura Laitinen-Warren and Nancy Welch opposed, requires all 3K-6 grade students and associated staff wear a mask indoors.
Face coverings will be optional outdoors for all grades.
Masks will still be required for all grades on district buses.
Mask requirements for WIAA events will follow WIAA requirements.
If COVID-19 infection rates of the district population reach 1% for five consecutive days, masks will be required until the rate falls below .2%.
Becker said it’s a step.
“There wasn’t majority support to be fully optional,” Becker said. “But we also still have five weeks left before (we) start (school).”
Vanden Heuvel received applause and cheering when he questioned other board members on what it would take for them to approve optional masks.
“We need to have that conversation,” he said. “In the past, we talked about burden rates. We were constantly looking at it and there were numbers we didn’t think we’d ever achieved, and we’re there. So if you are not going to support the motion, when would you support it?”
Trustee Brenda Warren said parents who want to protect their children with the vaccine should have the opportunity to do so before being required to be around adults who may not be vaccinated.
“I would support the motion when everyone has a complete choice for their child,” Warren said. “Right now, students that are 11 and younger, those families don’t have a choice. We’ve come this far. It sounds like the vaccine should be available sometime in the fall. In my mind, after kind of looking after October when young kids are vaccinated, and hopefully we are on the downswing of the Delta variant.”
Laitinen-Warren said the motion that passed is a compromise of what all the parents are saying.
“It is a philosophical viewpoint of collective good or individual,” she said. “Coming from the Oneida culture, it’s what’s best for the elders and the children, and that is how decisions are made.”
Vanden Heuvel said the board will discuss mask options for gym class at its meeting in August.
Superintendent Steve Murley said district administrators will now develop implementation guidelines in line with the board’s directive.
Two school resource officers (SROs) were present at Monday’s meeting at the request of the administration and board leadership.
Communications Director Lori Blakeslee said it’s not uncommon for the district to have SROs present to provide assistance with crowd control when a large audience is anticipated at a meeting.
Parents on both sides of the issue described Monday’s meeting as a loss.
Jann Larson, a parent of two children at Leonardo da Vinci School for Gifted Learners, said while hopeful, she wasn’t surprised by the board’s decision.
“I am just disgraced that they are doing this,” Larson said. “I’m not surprised, but I’m also not surprised by the board’s stupidity either.”
She said if her children weren’t enrolled in a gifted school, she would have pulled them at the beginning of last year.
Denise Seibert, a parent of a special education student, said no one won, including her family.
“Tonight’s meeting left me feeling disheartened and disillusioned,” Seibert said. “I thought the school board was supposed to do what was best for all students, instead they’ve created a deep-seated divide again in the community.”
She said at the middle school, only sixth-grade students are subject to enforced masking while making them optional for seventh- and eighth-graders makes no sense.
“My son is unable to wear a mask due to his neurological impairment,” she said. “I feel I am being forced into keeping my child home, someone who truly needs to be in school for hands-on learning. This is of great disadvantage to him, and the rest of our at-risk youth.”