JEFFERSON — As the Jefferson school board set out to approve an updated COVID-19 policy, taking into account a variety of procedural measures, board member Travis Maze asked about language requiring students to wear masks inside.
If and when the state mandate ends, that issue should come back to the full school board, members agreed.
Noting that the state’s mask mandate is set to expire Sept. 28, Maze asked why the district had codified the current mandate that face coverings be worn inside.
Earlier in the summer, he pointed out, the consensus had seemed to be that masks should be worn when 6-foot social distancing could not be maintained.
Then came the statewide mandate, followed by a flurry of cases in school districts that opened early and did not have a mask requirement. Now big spikes are being seen on college campuses.
Meanwhile, new information has come out about the virus being airborne.
“Our (COVID-19) numbers are quite high,” Jefferson Superintendent Mark Rollefson said. “I think we’ll continue as we are for awhile. Students and staff are a lot safer that way.”
“That seems like a different discussion than we had in the past,” Maze said, recalling earlier in the year when board members had talked about “mask breaks” and students not having to wear masks all day.
It is happening, but in a controlled way. Students must take off their masks to eat, but are being social-distanced as much as possible during this time, and many teachers are taking classes outside to give them access to the fresh air, where the coronavirus has a much harder time spreading.
Rollefson reiterated that Wisconsin and Jefferson County COVID-19 numbers are still quite high, and under those conditions he felt it was wise to stay the course, at least until the number of cases saw a more lasting downturn.
Meanwhile, the superintendent said, he has been extremely impressed with how seriously staff members and students are taking all of the new rules designed to minimize COVID-19 spread.
“Rarely has there been a situation (of rule violations) we’ve had to address,” he said.
Kathy Volk, pupil services director, said that another factor in the decision to wear masks is that the measures the district would have to take to hold school without masks are onerous and almost unfeasible.
“When we looked at all of the protocols it would take to hold school without them ... masks allowed us to return students to school with some semblance of normality,” Volk said.
“The principals worked and worked and worked over the summer to try to find a way and they couldn’t keep students six feet apart (inside the regular school facilities).
“When you put masks on, we have more ability to run schools the way you want to,” she said.
Measuring out the space in classrooms and hallways, Rollefson said, administrators found that only in rare circumstances were they able to keep students 6 feet apart.
“That continues to be an obstacle,” he said.
Other board members weighed in against removing the mask rule at this point.
Board member Terri Wenkman noted that the statewide mandate applied until Sept. 28 “unless extended,” which might yet happen.
A medical professional, Wenkman said that though officials are doing their best to quantify the spread of COVID-19 in the area, it’s impossible to measure the cases that might have been prevented as people adopted the wearing of masks.
“I look at the levels of infection daily, and unfortunately, they’re going up,” Wenkman said.
Fellow board member Dick Lovett said he viewed face coverings as more of a long-term strategy than a short-term fix.
He likened them to Band-Aids over a childhood wound. Until there’s a widely available vaccine or other mitigating mechanism, masks remain the best defense against the pandemic which is deadly for some and leaves long-lasting effects for others.
Lovett said he felt it was unwise “to randomly mandate a day to take that Band-Aid off.”
He suggested the district review the practice at the end of the first semester, when officials have been able to track the disease’s trajectory with students in the physical schools.
If the mask requirement is dropped, Lovett said, he would not be surprised to see COVID-19 numbers drop for a week or two and then spike up again as people got more relaxed about taking this preventive measure.
“I cannot in good conscience live with a short term approach,” he said.
Maze said he was looking for some sort of plan that lays out exactly what the metrics would have to be for the mask requirement to be dropped.
“When parents who didn’t want their children wearing masks see the mandate not getting extended (on the state level), they will have questions,” Maze said.
“All the way through the school year, I don’t think, is not going to fly with our parents and guardians,” he said.
Lovett agreed the issue needs more discussion, but he noted that the district has codified guidelines before, when the initial guidelines came out from the county, and then changed them.
Lovett said the district should not set guidelines it will regret later, and that he’d rather be cautious.
Rollefson said what he heard in this discussion was that any decision regarding face coverings, as well as any change in the level of instruction (traditional, the current plan with parents given the option to enroll their children virtually, hybrid, and all-virtual) needed to come back to the board for approval rather than being decided administratively.
With that note, the school board passed the updated COVID-19 plan, with Maze voting in opposition.