Ashwaubenon schools mandate masks in grades 4K-6
By Kevin Boneske
ASHWAUBENON – One week after the district began classes with recommended masks, the Ashwaubenon School Board changed its policy for the lower grades.
After receiving a report Sept. 8 on the increase in students’ quarantines when in close contact with someone testing positive for COVID-19, the board voted 5-0 to require students and staff in grades 4K-6 to wear masks while indoors.
Children under age 12, who are in those grade levels, currently are not eligible to be vaccinated, while older students in the upper grades are.
Board President Jay VanLaanen and Vice President Brian Van De Kreeke said they supported the motion, which took effect Sept. 10, because federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines do not recommend children who wear masks and have no symptoms of the virus to be quarantined if they are in close contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19.
“The one exception to this rule is if the positive case was not wearing a mask while in close contact with others,” the district’s statement on the policy change stated.
Superintendent Kurt Weyers said exemptions to the mask requirement in grades 4K-6 could be requested, such as for students with a medical condition.
During the meeting, Weyers said 29 students were absent on the first day of school, Sept. 1, either testing positive or in close contact to someone with the virus, with 19 at the elementary level and 10 at the secondary level.
According to the district’s COVID-19 dashboard as of Wednesday, Sept. 15, the number of students absent has jumped to 189 district-wide – 122 at the elementary level and 67 at the secondary level.
Weyers said vaccinated staff have been experiencing less severe symptoms, which has allowed them to return sooner.
“They’re feeling better, but certainly because they’ve been vaccinated,” he said. “So again, if you have not been vaccinated, we would highly encourage you to get vaccinated.”
Weyers said the district’s top priorities related to COVID-19 include keeping students and staff safe, followed by keeping students learning in-person.
“It’s much better for our kids to be in school (than learning virtually),” he said. “We will always make decisions, or recommend decisions to our school board, that we feel are based upon those two top priorities.”
Weyers said the district will not be able to do that if it has to continue to quarantine large numbers of students, supporting the change to required masking.
“We talk about keeping kids safe,” he said. “We think keeping kids safe is keeping them in school…”
Weyers said the CDC provides updated quarantine guidelines when everyone wears masks.
“If we are all wearing masks, there would be a limited number of quarantines, so our students would not miss school, 10 days of school at least,” he said.
Weyers said wearing masks could eliminate about 95% of quarantines.
“What I mean is if everyone’s wearing a mask, the CDC allows us to not quarantine an entire classroom…,” he said. “The CDC allows us not to quarantine the entire class at the elementary level, and for even unvaccinated students at the secondary level, if they are asymptomatic.”
Weyers said the exception would be for someone with a mask exemption who tests positive, for which everyone in an elementary classroom would have to quarantine.
“If you are vaccinated… you do not have to quarantine if you don’t have symptoms,” he said.
Given elementary students currently are not eligible for the vaccine, Board Clerk Jennifer Vyskocil said wearing masks in those grades “is a small thing to do to keep them in school and to keep them learning.”
“Kids should be in school,” she said. “Families need their kids to be in school.”
Because not all sixth-graders at Parkview Middle School have had the opportunity to be vaccinated for COVID-19 due to varying ages, Weyers said the mask mandate would include sixth-grade students and staff.
He said seventh- and eighth-grade students and staff in the same building would not be required to wear masks.
VanLaanen said the key factor in his decision in requiring masks in grades 4K-6 was keeping students in school.
“Apparently (COVID-19 is) not going to go away, and I don’t know how close they are to getting a vaccine for any kids that are under 12,” he said. “Common sense would say, ‘Let’s get these kids vaccinated.’ We need to get our kids masked up, 4K through sixth grade, and teachers that are involved with these kids.”
Even with masks, Van De Kreeke said he still has “great concerns” about the spread of COVID-19 because “masks don’t solve everything.”
“I understand that we want to keep kids in school,” he said. “I think the community – you know, how many times can they be told or asked, ‘Get vaccinated, get your kids vaccinated.’ We heard that over and over again. I’m OK with that (mask mandate) at the elementary level. If it’s for the older kids, I would maybe be a little bit different on that, because they do have the opportunity to be vaccinated…”
Mike Mader, the board’s open enrollment representative, said he doesn’t think masks worn in schools work in preventing the spread of COVID-19.
“But we’re being put in a corner by the CDC to force these kids to wear masks, and we’re only making this decision to keep them in school,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s really for their health. We just said the vaccinated and unvaccinated are still passing it on.”
Vyskocil said the board will have to revisit the issue as the spread of COVID-19 changes.
“It’s very fluid, I think,” she said.
VanLaanen said the board isn’t scheduled to meet again until Oct. 27, when it will consider final approval of the 2021-22 district budget, but a special meeting could be held before then, if necessary.
The board didn’t take public comments on the issue during the meeting when one parent in the audience shouted out she wasn’t going to put masks back on her children who previously had the virus.
Weyers said masks would be available for students to wear if they would show up at school without them.