By Sarah Nigbor
RIVER FALLS – The River Falls School Board took up the masking debate again at its Dec. 21 meeting, but agreed to hold off on a vote until Jan. 25. After a COVID update from Superintendent Jamie Benson, who advised against unmasking at this time, the board talked over their viewpoints and struggles with the ongoing debate.
Benson’s presentation began with outlining the district’s values in developing its mask matrix in August 2021.
Safety – Implement proactive prevention/mitigation strategies to keep students and staff as physically safe as possible while understanding the social/emotional/academic needs of students.
In-school learning – Adhere to the mission to prioritize in-school learning.
Consider everybody – Meet the diverse needs of all students; understand district decisions impact homes; understand children with pre-existing medical conditions/needs; etc.
Between Dec. 12 and Dec. 22, the district recorded 41 new COVID cases among staff and students. The total confirmed and probable cases reported within RFSD geographic boundaries in the last seven days (as of Dec. 21) per 100,000 population was 401.8. The total number of confirmed and probably cases in RFSD geographic boundaries in the last seven days (as of Dec. 21) was 99 (out of a population of 24,620).
Compared to other districts where masking is optional, River Falls has seen the lowest percentage of positive COVID cases at 6.7%, along with Eau Claire (which also requires masks). Surrounding districts include Menomonie at 10.9%, Hudson at 7%, New Richmond at 8.8%, Chippewa Falls at 8.9%, Rice Lake at 10%, and Durand at 7.1%.
Vaccination rates for Pierce County hover at 54.1%; St. Croix County is at 60.5%; and River Falls School District is at 57.5%.
“Now is not the time to lower the masks, not just yet,” Benson said. “Many people would agree that we’re all tired of masks.”
The CDC, Pierce County Public Health and State Superintendent recommend continuing layered protection strategies in the schools, Benson said. This includes staying home when sick, masking (to protect you and others), providing testing, cleaning/sanitizing high traffic areas and promoting good hygiene, and vaccinations, which slow the spread while decreasing illness severity and death.
The COVID case (Omicron) transmission rate and hospitalization capacity are worthy considerations, Benson added. On the other hand, it’s important to also consider vaccine availability for ages 5-11; social, emotional and academic tolls, and the fact that districts where masking is optional have had no massive shutdowns, Benson said.
Board President Stacy Johnson-Myers asked the board to go in a circle, giving their thoughts on the masking issue.
Board member Lindsey Curtis said her opinion isn’t much different than it was in August, when Delta was coming.
“I think we do have some evidence in looking around us that there were other schools that chose to do it differently and there has not been a significant difference in the impact that COVID has had in the delivery of in-person learning opportunities,” she said.
She pointed out that many held off on making masks optional because vaccines weren’t yet available for ages 5-11. Now they are. Plus, the social, emotional and behavioral impacts are important.
“Parents do know what’s best for their child and I’d love to allow them to make that decision,” Curtis said.
She’s also concerned the effect mandated masks have on 4K-2 early literacy, especially those who don’t come from households that read regularly. Teaching phonics through a mask is difficult. English language learners benefit from facial expressions and emotions.
“As adults, we have such a, many years of emotional learning that have helped us navigate this sudden faceless interaction,” Curtis said.
Board Treasurer Todd Schultz said he was on the fence in August, and masking seemed like the easiest form of mitigation in order to have events, sports and in-person instruction. However, it’s not having as big an impact on slowing cases as he’d like. He also pointed out that pediatric vaccines and boosters are now available.
“It’s almost like moving the goal post for the end game for a fourth time,” Schultz said. “I feel like there’s enough evidence for us now to say, I haven’t seen any terrible impacts to other districts in terms of what they’re able to do vs. what we’re able to do. Vaccine availability makes me more open to a change, even with new variants.”
Johnson Myers said for her, the No. 1 priority is protecting in-person learning and she believes masking is one way to do that. Overall, a growing body of scientific evidence shows that masks make a difference, she said.
“The Omicron variant is significantly more contagious,” Johnson Myers said. “I’m also concerned about providing the virus additional opportunities to mutate. That’s what viruses do.
“One of the things I’ve said repeatedly over the last months is that we need to make decisions with a sense of humility. We are not experts in epidemiology or statistics, medicine or public health, and I think that we need to listen to the guidance.”
Board Vice President Amy Halvorson questioned how many kids wear masks in the optional districts; Benson said it’s less than 10% of students and less than 50% of staff.
“It seems to me there’s always going to be a reason why we shouldn’t move to masks optional,” Halvorson said. “I’m to the point, do or don’t. I would like to move toward masks optional while using other mitigation strategies.”
Board Clerk Alan Tuchtenhagen is startled by the low vaccination rate in the region, which allowed the virus to mutate and spread, he said. Barely 50% of ages 12-17 and 20% of ages 511 are vaccinated.
“The only way we’re going to get out of this, masks or no masks, is for people to get it or get the vaccine,” Tuchtenhagen said. “By spring, the majority will have had it or be vaccinated or both. Vaccines are moving way too slow and it’s why we are where we are.
“As long as this virus continues to rage and we have so much resistance to vaccination, this is where we’re going to be. And the irony is, this is a community that has not been traditionally anti-vaccination.”
Never in his 30 years in River Falls has he seen anything like this, he continued. Politics have created this problem.
Board member Bob Casey said in August, he thought masking was best because he’d heard from so many parents whose children weren’t yet eligible for the vaccine. He himself has gotten his booster, but he’s disturbed that the goal posts, like Schultz said, continue to move. He suggested voting in January to go optional, which may give some parents a sense of urgency to get their kids vaccinated. He also pointed out that e-school is available for those who need it.
Board member Cindy Holbrook’s not sure where she stands. She shared that it hasn’t been easy to find a place to get kids vaccinated, in her experience. She said it took “a lot of hussle, a lot of advocacy phone calls.” She actually had to take her kids out of town, she said.
She’s also had three people she knows die in the past six weeks, and watched loved ones navigate hospitals these days. It’s heartbreaking, she said.
“To hear about it is one thing, to live it is another,” she said. She’s torn because she works at UW-River Falls, where masks are mandated and it’s not a big deal. Scientists say masks make a difference. But then, she went to the RFHS musical “Matilda,” where maybe 20 people in the entire crowd wore masks, and eight of them were with her. Her kids have to be reminded to take their masks off, because it doesn’t bother them.
“I don’t know where I’m going to land,” she admitted. “The timing after the holidays and travel isn’t good, but there will never be a good time. I will always err on the side of being safe. Then again, all these events where I see maskless people. Those events are optional. School is not.”
The board went around the circle two more times, adding a bit to their opinions each round. The one thing that remained clear, is that the vote will take place on whether or not to make masks optional at the Jan. 25 meeting.
Johnson Myers said the mask question wakes her up many nights, the complex relationship between the individual and the collective, balancing liberty with trying to have a healthy community.
Schultz said he’s not resigned, but feels the district would almost need to do more, to go back to March 2020 rules, to make a real difference at this point.
“I don’t think the mask is enough now,” he admitted. “We’re at the point of no return, really.”
Tuchtenhagen admitted what the board does may not have as much of an impact as they’d like. His wife is a Registered Nurse in the Cities, and said 80% or more of people who come in with COVID are not vaccinated.
“It frustrates the heck out of me that people don’t take that action, but then again at the end of the day, people have their own liberties,” he said. “They can choose to do what they want to do, yeah, I can’t fix that. I’m getting the feeling that I’m trying to fix that by having children mask and it frustrates me, because I’m not sure it’s going to make a difference.”
Benson said the situation is like putting a screen door on a submarine.