RIVER FALLS – “People are trying to find a way forward and we’re trying to balance a bunch of different interests and it feels impossible to me,” said River Falls School Board Treasurer Todd …
RIVER FALLS – “People are trying to find a way forward and we’re trying to balance a bunch of different interests and it feels impossible to me,” said River Falls School Board Treasurer Todd Schultz. “It’s been as difficult a thing as I can imagine in terms of making a decision like this, so it’s not taken lightly.”
After initially voting to make masking optional for River Falls School District students and staff at an Aug. 9 special school board meeting, after hours of comments, discussion and a couple of failed motions, on Monday, Aug. 16 the River Falls School Board ultimately voted 5-2 to makes masking mandatory in all school district buildings for students and staff. The board also voted to reduce close contact tracing to three feet, and to provide notifications of close contacts but not enforce quarantining. Board members Lindsey Curtis and Amy Halvorson voted against the motion.
Although Halvorson and Curtis voted against making masking mandatory, one thing all board members agreed upon was the importance of having in-person learning this year. Their opinions just differed on what that would look like.
As the meeting began with over an hour of public comments, Board President Stacy Johnson Myers talked about the tremendous anxiety and division in the nation over masking and vaccines.
“While none of us can single-handedly end the division, together all of us can prevent from dividing our community and separating us from our neighbor,” Johnson Myers said.
She asked the audience to remember that everyone cares about the children and to treat each other with respect, grace and good will. Eighteen people stepped up to speak. Seven asked for mandatory masking, nine for optional masking, and two talked about critical race theory creeping into RFSD lessons.
RFSD parent Rellen Hardtke spoke first through choked-back tears, her voice filled with desperation. She said she has a child with a chronic medical condition who is not yet eligible for the vaccine.
“I’m only here because I find it inconceivable that some members of the board and school leadership are willing to risk the lives and future health of our students because of a minority public backlash based on misinformation, intentional or otherwise,” Hardtke said. “But that’s all the more reason to do the right thing.
“Please! Every reliable scientific source in the US is asking you, begging you, to require masks. From the CDC, to our local pediatricians, to our local world-class epidemiologist. There are not two sides to this issue.”
She ended by asking who in the community the board will pick to become infected by not enforcing masks.
“There are a disproportionate number of anti-maskers here because the smart ones are home,” she said.
Julie Wold-Shane spoke next in favor of making masking optional and politics.
“I promise, we the parents will have your backs come re-election time,” she said. “Having a mask choice is imperative as health options aren’t a one-size fits all. For those who voted for masking, please stop placing this burden on our children and stop protecting yourselves politically.”
Parent Abby Van Stone said she’s terrified to send her kids to school if masks aren’t enforced, because she is vulnerable with a brain tumor diagnosis and invasive surgery approaching.
“And all because the very idea of legitimizing the actual, scientifically proven risks of this virus anchors those who politicize it by taking the stance that you can’t bring yourselves to compel somebody else to do the right thing and the only thing to most effectively mitigate the spread of a potentially deadly virus,” Van Stone said.
Parent Angie Krause said if the board changes its decisions and pivots based on COVID case numbers, that’s not fair to parents.
“Then I have to pull my kids out of school and I have to figure it out. You can’t stop spread with masks or mitigation. It’s going to run its course. Are we going to mask forever?”
She then chastised Johnson Meyers for shushing celebratory clapping at the Aug. 9 meeting, saying she “kind of ruined the moment, actually.”
Liz Allen, a 73-year-old woman, said asking people to mask is also about protecting people around children, people like her. She has a weakened immune system.
“I’m not looking forward to getting sick with anything, whether I die or not,” Allen said. “I don’t want to have my health, which is robust to a point, undermined because of somebody else’s decision.”
Another parent accused the board and district of segregation if they choose to have separate protocols for those with vaccines and those without. An eighth grader came to the podium and told the board he’s been bullied because he has a medical condition that prevents him from wearing a mask. It made him dread going to school last year, he said.
An ER nurse named Emily said she appreciates how school went last year and how as an ER nurse, she and her colleagues saw much less childhood illness visits thanks to masking. She begged the district to require masking, since the Delta variant spreads easier and faster. Masking makes for a healthier environment for all, she said. She also turned to the audience and spoke pointedly to them.
“It’s our choice as parents in a community to teach our children how to be compassionate people, how to be caring people and how to love one another and show them show up to school every day with a mask on their face because they don’t want to make somebody else sick,” she said. “Because you don’t know who your neighbor is.”
Sara Bocklund told the board she believes having COVID and dying of COVID are two different things.
“Are kids dying in Pierce County? No,” Bocklund said. “You’ve been played. You’re living in fear. In Jesus’ name, fear is of the devil. So in the name of our Lord Jesus, I command fear to have no more hold here, no more fear in the hearts of its citizens, no more fear here in this district, no more fear in this county, state, or country.”
Wildcat Road Map 2.0
On Monday, Aug. 9, the board voted to make masking optional, but didn’t have time to vote on mitigation efforts. Superintendent Jamie Benson presented a slideshow with data to the board to help in their decision-making, including information concerning area hospital bed use, climbing COVID numbers, Department of Health seven-day reported case averages, number of new and confirmed cases in Pierce and St. Croix counties, the CDC Data Tracker and the Harvard Model.
In the RFSD boundaries, in December the seven-day average number of cases was 46.9. That number dipped to its lowest point in May at 1.7. In August, it has crept up to 13.6 and is expected to increase.
Benson said the low numbers in May were cause for relief, but then Delta came.
“It’s as contagious as chicken pox and spreads like wildfire,” Benson said.
The purpose of the plan is to develop a comprehensive strategy to address PK-12 organizational structure and possible intermittent pandemic-related interruptions throughout the school year. In-person learning is of utmost importance.
However, plans will be subject to change as determined by the number of COVID cases, overall COVID transmission rates and related illnesses.
“In the event a change is needed based on COVID-19 data, low staffing levels, further CDC and/or PH guidance and/or mandates, the SDRF Board of Education will take these items into consideration and make appropriate changes when needed,” the plan states.
Board member Cindy Holbrook made a motion to make masking mandatory for PK-12, with close contact tracing at three feet for all. The motion failed 3-4 and debate ensued.
“I think we need to support Public Health recommendations, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations, the CDC recommendations,” Holbrook said. “We need to look at the plan holistically to make sure it aligns with our mission, values, priorities and goals as a district.”
Schultz said he’s spent many sleepless nights because he’s so conflicted. He admitted that having kids in school is a priority, so optional masking is likely contrary to that in some regard. He expressed feeling conflicted about mandating masks to those old enough to choose a vaccine.
“But I would hope that we, regardless of which way we go, that there could be exceptions and considerations on an individual basis with the idea that people in our buildings, teachers, students, can be made to or helped to understand why some of those situations exist.”
Board member Bob Casey called the situation “messy” and said it’s a weight on him as well.
“I’m highly disappointed in the increase” in cases, Casey said.
After speaking to numerous teachers, physicians and parents, what bothers him most is the effect of quarantining on students and families, he said. He asked if a matrix would be possible, to determine when masks should be mandatory or optional.
“We could be more liberal if masks were mandatory,” he said about quarantines.
Board Clerk Alan Tuchtenhagen reminded the board it’s usually preventive, not reactive.
“I was struck by the number of emails with personal stories and anecdotes that speak from deep conviction,” he said.
He posed a question to the audience: What are you all going to do to get along, regardless of the decision?
Johnson Meyers said feedback she’s received has strengthened her conviction that in-person learning is key, though she’s proud of the district’s virtual program. She heard way more concerns on close contact quarantines than anything else.
“If we’re actually to have masks, it would actually give us more freedom in the academic day to meet the needs of our kids,” she said.
She spoke on having humility, and remembering that they as board members are not the health experts. Holbrook agreed, saying building matrixes and models should be left to the medical experts. Let Benson and the administrators get back to academics.
“If for us to create our own model and matrix, we have to say that we trust the exact data that we’re saying that we don’t or we’re not going to follow,” Holbrook said. “That doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Halvorson suggested following other area districts, who are mostly mask optional. She suggested defining a “hard number” of when to make masking mandatory and a hard number for dialing it back down.
The heaviness and case numbers increasing “doesn’t thrill me at all,” she said.
New board member Curtis said fundamentally, she values parents being able to make the masking decisions for their kids, but that maybe cohorting is worse than mask-wearing. It’s important to reduce the impact of close contact tracing and sending home kids, possibly needlessly, she said.
“Masks do affect early literacy,” she opined. “But tight cohorting may be more detrimental.”
Before the vote failed, Johnson Meyers explained why the board was voting again on masking, when it had done so Aug. 9.
“It’s come to the floor because we are looking at all of these layers of mitigation and how they fit together,” Johnson Meyers said. “We did not have a chance to do that thoroughly last week, which is why it’s back on the floor today.”
After more discussion about vaccination availability per age group, close contact quarantines, cohorting, seating charts and masking decisions affecting everyone around a person, not just in their immediate household, Schultz proposed another motion: Making masking mandatory, close contact tracing for three feet and under, and notifying close contacts without imposing quarantines. He said he wants to consider the numbers locally and search for an in-between.
“In the spring, I wanted masks optional,” Schultz said. “Now, I know that’s not the most prudent. I keep hearing ‘My child doesn’t have the option to vaccinate.’” Casey agreed that giving a close contact notification would give teachers a “huge amount of time back.” Then parents can monitor symptoms, get kids tested if they choose, etc.
The final vote passed 5-2, making masking mandatory for PK12, close contact tracing for all at three feet, and notification but no quarantines. Elementary cohort groupings will be modified to allow for Team Time, the buddies program, character pride group meetings, etc.
The board agreed to meet weekly if needed; this decision is not locked in stone for the whole year. The district will also provide easy access to testing (with parental consent) for families who are interested, through a third-party vendor.
“No one is completely happy,” Schultz said. “But we can’t rehash this over and over.”
At the time of publication, the next RFSD Board of Education meeting is set for 7 p.m. Monday, Sept. 20.
Screenshot courtesy of River Falls School District