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Mask discussion sparks tension at West De Pere

By Josh Staloch
Staff Writer

DE PERE – Emotions ran high Nov. 17 as the West De Pere School Board voted 4-1 to do away with its K-6 mask mandate, beginning Dec. 17.

“Because the vaccine is now available for children (ages 5-11), we’re going to ride that out for six weeks, after the date it became available, giving it time to take effect,” Board President Jenni Fuss said. “So, as of Dec. 17, masks will be optional in our buildings.”

The change came in part from a recommendation from administration.

“Our number one priority is keeping schools open with as many students in attendance as possible.” De Pere Superintendent Dennis Krueger said. “We also value individuals. However, that does not supersede the first priority.”  There are opposing viewpoints but we believe that (the vaccine) is a significant mitigating factor. We can look at our secondary data, where (7-12 graders) had the option to be vaccinated for some time and they’re constantly having better numbers and lower instances than our elementary data.” 

The decision comes with flexibility for administration to make changes if needed, including:

•If spread takes place in a classroom (three or more positive cases after contact tracing has taken place and spread is determined by nurses) individuals in that classroom must then mask for a period of two weeks.

•If spread takes place in three or more classrooms simultaneously in a school, the entire school must mask for a period of two weeks.

•If a classroom experiences greater than or equal to five positive cases within a 72 hour period the entire classroom may be quarantined.

•If the percentage of individuals school-wide testing positive meets or exceeds 2.5% based on a 10 day rolling average, masking will be required for two weeks.

According to the dashboard as of Tuesday, Nov. 23, there are 76 students in the district out for COVID-19 related reasons (close contact, caring for a quarantined family member, awaiting test results, etc.). 47 students are currently COVID-19 positive. seven staff members in the district are COVID-19 positive.

Though it is making the switch to optional masking Dec. 17, the board said it will not change its quarantine protocols, which currently quarantines symptomatic close contacts.

Contentious topic

The decision received mixed reaction from the public.

Parent Erin Haworth, who is in favor of masks, said she is concerned about the behavior she has seen from some of her fellow parents.

“We have an obligation to act for the benefit of society and to be socially responsible by caring for ourselves and each other,” she said. “At what point does your child’s choice end because it endangers my child? And is your six-year-old really choosing not to wear a mask? Or, are you modeling that behavior for them?”

Parent Jack Mason, who is opposed to mandating masks, said they don’t work.

“There’s no studies that show they work,” he said. “It’s not good for the teachers. It’s not good for the students that they can’t show expression. The whole thing about conspiracy theories, well, if it’s a conspiracy theory, it’s true. That’s what we’ve learned.”

Thoughts from the board

School Board Member Ryan Van Den Heuvel said he sympathizes with those who struggle with mask wearing, admitting he does, too. 

“These are some of the medications I take right now, just to function daily,” Van Den Heuvel said before emptying a bag of his prescription bottles out onto the table in front of him. “Knowing that I’m going to a meeting like this could drive me into such a freak out that I might pull over to the side of the road and get sick. An hour board meeting seems like eight to me.” 

Van Den Heuvel said he’s concerned young students aren’t comfortable with asking for mask breaks.

“At 45, I can get up and I can walk outside and I can take a mask break,” he said. “But a 7-year old can’t. If that 7-year old takes his mask off, or her mask off, they’re getting in trouble. It’s hard for a little kid to come up to somebody and tell them what’s wrong. Personally, just from my own life experiences, it’s very hard for me to function with this (mask on). But I’m a big boy. I’ll get through it. It’s the little kids I worry about.”

Several staff members present at the meeting said students are provided with multiple opportunities to remove their masks throughout the day, such as lunch and recess.

“It’s tough to find that balance of doing what we need to do to keep kids safe and healthy while they’re at school and trying to maintain in-person learning but also recognizing that, for some people, it’s really hard to wear a mask,” Amy Schuh, director of human services said. “If a kid asks for one, teachers are giving them breaks. In my opinion, I think teachers are being very sensitive to that and really being conscious of getting kids outside more often or even walking around the building.”

Schuh also noted the district has granted at least 60 exemptions to wearing masks based on medical or religious reasons, refusing none of the exemption requests it has received.

Board member Barb Van Deurzen said the Dec. 17 date gives those wanting to be vaccinated time to get it.

“Not everybody’s going to get vaccinated on the first day,” she said. “Appointments have to be made and it takes time. And a lot of people have said they don’t plan to vaccinate their kids. That’s their choice. The plan gives us enough time to see the vaccine take effect.”

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