By Lee Reinsch
DE PERE – Masks will continue to be optional for the older students in the De Pere School District, despite climbing numbers of COVID-19 cases and quarantines.
The board voted Monday, Oct. 18, to not add middle and high school students to its mandatory masking policy, following a report from Superintendent Ben Villarruel which showed a rise in new positive COVID-19 cases and active quarantines in recent weeks, in both the middle and high school.
Almost 25% of the entire student body was in quarantine as of Oct. 18, consisting of 40% of the high and middle school student bodies and 15% of the 4K-6 population.
“I’m just afraid that if we continue to experience this rate of increase, we will be forced to shut the school down for a few weeks until it calms down,” Villarruel said.
The district’s policy on masking remains to require it for all students in grades 4K-6 and “strongly recommend and encourage” it for those in grades 7-12.
Administration said its recommendation, which failed 4-2, was steered in the direction of three goals: ensuring face-to-face education, minimizing the spread of COVID-19 and minimizing student and staff quarantines.
The School Board also heard from a throng of people who took to the lectern to voice their disgruntlement with masks and quarantines.
More than a dozen parents, grandparents, students, medical professionals and community members spoke against the district’s masking and quarantine policies.
Seong Graham opened her 3-minutes by saying, “Look around and you can tell who voted for whom by who is masked and who is unmasked.”
At least two doctors representing Physicians for Freedom, Dr. Charles Dais and Dr. Daniel Koster, spoke against masks and quarantines, claiming they do more harm than good.
Joel Neuville, a father in the district, said last meeting’s speaker, Dr. Donald Beno, a board-certified pediatrician with Aurora Health Care, was “biased” in favor of western medicine.
“Why would you think of bringing someone like that in, rather than someone who can speak to both sides?” Neuville said.
June Nies, a health coach who lives in De Pere who claimed no district affiliation, said she’d heard masks are making the teeth of people of all ages fall out “because of the bacteria in their mouths.”
She also did not explain why oral bacteria was any different whether a person wore a mask.
However, according to the World Dental Federation, thousands of Americans ended up foregoing their dental appointments during the pandemic, which could lead to dental hygiene problems.
Pamela Deprey, a district grandparent, suggested the school board read Telegram, the website of a censored doctor, or the fringe conspiracy X-22 Report.
At least two people suggested seeking information from pseudoscience websites and referred to western medicine as “junk science” focused on “pushing pharmaceuticals” that “change a person’s immune system.”
Two women touted ivermectin, an anti-parasitic medication often used in animals, and hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug.
Susan Netzel, a repeat commenter, questioned the district’s quarantine practices.
She said her 16-year-old was notified he’d need to quarantine again, just three days after returning to school from his first quarantine.
“Is it working?” Netzel questioned. “No.”
Nick Joseph, De Pere High School principal, said only 5% to 10% of high school students wear their face masks.
Middle School Principal Adam Kraemer estimated the same for his students.
Cassidy Dittmer accused the board of not listening to the children.
She brought her child, Natalie, who talked about wearing a mask and how it makes her feel apart from others.
Dittmer said the mask is getting in the way of her daughter’s enjoyment of her high school years, which are “supposed to be among the best of your life.”
“You hear older people talking about the good old days,” Natalie said. “I’m not having my good old days.”
District parent Katie Carviou thanked board members for their sacrifices.
“You didn’t sign up for this – all of the name calling and abuse and threats cannot be easy,” Carviou said.
As Carviou returned to her seat, she was approached by Dittmer, who heckled her, saying, “I think you have something on your face,” referring to the mask she wore.
Dittmer also called out a journalist taking photos, and asked if she’d had permission from every person in the auditorium to take their photo.
Taking photos of people and things in public forums is a constitutional right.
Another mother, Anna Sutherland applauded the district’s policy on masking and quarantining, saying it was responsible for making her children miss “zero days of school.”
David Hunnicutt, associate professor of biology at St. Norbert College, likened masks and quarantining to driving a car and taking the personal responsibility to follow traffic laws to keep oneself and others safe.
“I know I have to give up a little freedom because I could be carrying the virus,” he said.
Hunnicutt, Carviou and Sutherland were the sole defenders of the board and district.