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In less than two weeks school will begin in our community and once again we are divided on the best path forward to keep students and staff safe, while at the same time delivering the quality education we have come to expect from our K-12 public schools. We are all experiencing pandemic fatigue and most of us desperately want life to return to normal. Some school districts appear to be giving up, in part because they are tired of dealing with angry parents, or because the COVID-19 mitigation measures that schools put in place last year were exhausting and expensive.
But something is different this year. Because so many are still unvaccinated, including everyone under 12, the virus has been able to spread and mutate many times. The Delta variant, which accounts for most cases in our area, is exponentially more contagious and perhaps more deadly than anything we were dealing with last year. To make matters worse, it appears that fully vaccinated people can become infected and even spread Delta to others.
Although we are a community in turmoil, I believe that there are a few things we can all agree on after our experiences last year. I think we can agree that we want in person, face to face learning available for all students for the entire school year. I think we can also agree that we want staff, students and parents to feel safe and respected.
The good news is, we have the knowledge and experience to accomplish that. Whether we like it or not our individual choices have an impact on community health. If too many people become infected, we will not have enough staff to keep our schools open and by the time the numbers start climbing, it may be too late to stop the wave of infections. We also risk overwhelming our hospitals. The decisions our school leaders make now, will determine if our schools remain open in October, November, December and beyond. I am calling on local school board members to adopt the following mitigation measures that will keep school open and keep kids safe.
First and most important, universal masking for all staff and students in all K-12 schools. While it is true that most kids won’t experience severe symptoms from COVID-19, it is impossible to tell who will. Stop playing Russian roulette with people’s health. Numerous studies have proven that masks keep virus containing water droplets, that are expelled when we exhale, from infecting another individual. We all prefer not to wear masks, but if it can slow the spread of the virus, so that our schools can remain open and we can protect students and staff from severe consequences, it is worth it. In some states, masking mandates are tied to community transmission rates. When those rates decrease, masking once again becomes optional. Marathon County is currently at a VERY high rate of transmission.
Second, strongly encourage vaccination for eligible students and adults. Launch a robust information campaign to reach those who may have questions or concerns about the vaccine. From listening to public comments at board meetings and reading them online, I know that many are misinformed about the vaccine. Reaching out with accurate, reliable information, could help everyone navigate the information being shared by a variety of sources and help identify and debunk misinformation.
Equally important, work closely with The Marathon County Health Department. If Contact Tracing is not possible or not within the mission of the school district, find other ways to collaborate and support public health workers. Parents will be both frustrated and confused, if they receive guidance from the health department that conflicts with the guidance given by school authorities. Consider hiring additional school nurses. They were spread too thin before the pandemic and now their job is nearly impossible.
Lastly, institute some type of monitoring or testing strategy. From what I understand, the state of Wisconsin has offered to partner with school districts to provide a variety of onsite testing options at no charge to the school district. If we don’t know how the virus is spreading, we will be unable to stop the spread. Providing a testing option at school is also an equity issue. Let’s support families with limited resources and time and provide this option at school.
None of this is easy, but it is our job as adults to provide a safe, secure and nurturing environment for our children. If we frame this as community wide effort to work together to keep everyone healthy, and all do our part, we can keep schools open and keep everyone as safe as possible. Sometimes it is in the way we frame it. I saw a tweet this week that put things in perspective for me. A family was getting ready to enter a store. Mom and dad put on their masks and then the dad crouches down to a little girl, about three years old. Dad asks her “what do superheroes do?” Little girl answers “they protect people”. He then helps her get her mask on and asks, “what are you?” “I’m a superhero” she proudly proclaims. We all need to be superheroes for little while longer.
Beth Martin, Wausau