By Lee Reinsch
DE PERE – Students in grades 4K-6 in the West De Pere School District are now required to wear facemasks until the spread of coronavirus slows.
The new measure comes in response to what the administration called “significant spread” in the lower grades.
The School Board held a special meeting Sept. 29 to evaluate the recent outbreak and discuss mitigation strategies.
The spread has affected several classrooms and dozens of students, resulting in a significant chunk of the student body home on quarantine.
Schools impacted include West De Pere Intermediate School, Hemlock Elementary School and Westwood Elementary School.
As of Oct. 6, 1.5% of students in those three schools tested positive, with 6.96% out of school for reasons related to COVID-19.
Previously, board members heard a comparison of other school districts’ COVID-19 mitigation policies and incidence rates.
At that time, most board members said they felt there wasn’t a direct link between masks and the positivity rate of the virus.
However, that’s changed.
Many of those districts have now adopted masking policies for students in elementary schools, said West De Pere School District, Superintendent Dennis Krueger.
He said West De Pere outbreaks had been kept to a minimum, but that’s no longer the case.
“We’ve catapulted ourselves upward (in virus spread) and now outpace most of them 2-to-1, and we can point to the elementary and intermediate schools as the reason for it,” Krueger said.
Some theories suggested by staff for the higher positivity rate in the lower grades include the tendency of younger children to gather more, and with a larger number of their peers rather than a select few.
In addition, children under 12 are not yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.
When at home on quarantine, students who are old enough attend school online, Krueger said.
Board member Ryan Van Den Heuvel said the increase in positive cases might be attributable to seasonal shifts.
“Seasons change – (sickness) goes down in summer and up in winter and will come back down,” Van Den Heuvel said.
A survey sent to district parents found 56.6% felt masks were necessary to limit the spread of coronavirus in schools.
The district is also dealing with a shortage of substitute teachers.
Westwood Elementary School Principal Jason Lau described training for some substitute teachers as a domino effect.
He said teachers slated for training develop symptoms or have children of their own at home with symptoms, which in turn delays the process.
“Some subs are saying they don’t want to come to the building because they don’t feel safe,” Lau said.
He said this has led to a revolving door of substitute teachers with whom neither students nor staff get to know well.
“The little ones are further behind,” he said. “It’s a heartbreaking decision, but the little guys are resilient, more so than their principal.”
Staff and visitors in 4K-6 buildings are also required to wear masks.
Krueger said the district and board will revisit the issue in November.