By Kevin Boneske
ASHWAUBENON – As of the Aug. 11 school board meeting, the Ashwaubenon School District encouraged students and staff to wear masks for the 2021-22 school year but not to require them.
The board voted 4-1 to approve the administration’s recommendation for strategies to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, which includes:
• Students and staff who have not been vaccinated are highly encouraged to wear masks. Masks are optional for students and staff fully vaccinated.
• Continued use of hand sanitizing stations at each building along with frequent hand washing throughout the day.
• Continued routine cleaning and disinfection of common surfaces.
• Encourage all staff and families to monitor symptoms.
• Have a “soft start” to the school year at the 4K-8 level. Students with last names from A-Lemke will report on Wednesday, Sept. 1, and students with last names from Lemmen – Z will report on Thursday, Sept. 2. All students will report on Friday, Sept. 3. All high school students will report on Wednesday, Sept. 1.
• There will be no field trips during the first quarter of the school year.
• Visitors will not be allowed in the buildings before and during the school day. They will be allowed 20 minutes after the school day.
• Athletics will follow WIAA rules and regulations. There will be no capacity limits at events.
• There will be a 10-day quarantine period for those exposed to COVID-19. Vaccinated staff and students do not need to quarantine if they are in close contact with a positive case. They only need to monitor for symptoms. If any symptoms develop within two weeks of exposure, they should isolate and get tested.
• All students are still required by federal law to wear masks on public transportation. As of the board meeting, the federal mandate was set to expire Sept. 13.
“If things are spiking (with more positive COVID-19 tests), maybe we’ll need to make a change,” Board President Jay VanLaanen said. “I would support that, but if things are staying the same as they are right now, it’s status quo until we do see a major spike.”
Board Treasurer Michelle Garrigan, who was the lone dissenter and the only one of five voting members to wear a mask at the meeting, said she favored requiring face coverings for elementary students younger than 12 and not eligible for the vaccine.
Garrigan said cases of COVID-19 increased recently in the county, and the delta variant of the virus is more contagious.
“Having masks would reduce spread and quarantining,” she said. “I would support masking (at the) elementary school, where the high school and middle school (students) have options to vaccinate.”
Garrigan said wearing masks could help the district continue in-person instruction, with no online option offered to elementary students at Ashwaubenon for 2021-22.
“In middle school (and) high school, those students, if there was an immunocompromised student, they had the choice of learning online,” she said. “We didn’t offer that to elementary students.”
Superintendent Kurt Weyers said he too is worried about elementary students.
Weyers said the administrative staff believes the safest way to move forward for the start of the school year is with the plan which encourages everyone to wear masks, but the plan could change with positive COVID-19 cases at the elementary schools.
“If we had to close three classrooms in those buildings because of COVID breakout, then we might come back and say, ‘We’re going to ask, do we have masks at the elementary level, right?’” he said. “Or, we’re going to ask and say, ‘Do you want to have masks required at this elementary school, because we’re having issues there?’”
Weyers said he would prefer requiring masks, opposed to having the district switch to virtual learning.
He said the district’s administrative team chooses to wear masks because it wants the staff and students to feel comfortable wearing them.
“We’re highly encouraging everyone to wear masks,” Weyers said.
Board Clerk Jennifer Vyskocil, who didn’t wear a mask at the meeting, said she is vaccinated, but will wear a mask when she teaches first-graders this school year.
“We’re trying to give people choice, also, with the caveat that at some point things may change, and then it may not be so much a choice, because it’s a necessity,” she said.
Board Vice President Brian Van De Kreeke said 2021-22 is unlike last year because a vaccine for COVID-19 is now available.
“(COVID-19) is something that we, as a society, or as a world, are going to have to deal with,” he said. “This isn’t going to go way between now and with school starting, or between now and Christmas. Probably in the next five or 10 years, we’re going to have variants to deal with. We need to understand there will be people who will get sick, and they’re going to recover. In most cases, it’s going to be positive outcomes. The higher the vaccination rate, the better.”
Van De Kreeke said he believes the board will make the best decisions for students and staff to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
“(The board’s vote on the mitigation plan is) not going to please everyone,” he said to those in attendance. “If you go by the emails and the phone calls, about half of you are going to be mad by a decision, and the other half is going to be thrilled.”
Van De Kreeke said he believes it’s a good policy for the district to not require vaccinated people to quarantine if they don’t show symptoms after coming in close contact with someone who has the virus.
“If you’re choosing not to be vaccinated, then you know the risks,” he said. “You’re taking those risks, you’re assuming those risks, and that’s your right. That is your absolute right. It’s your body.”