Damakant Jayshi

The Wisconsin Association of School Boards on Monday asked its member boards to wear masks at all times during the WASB meetings in the fall and show proof of COVID-19 vaccination or negative tests for other gatherings.

In an update published on its website, WASB said all participants at regional meetings “must show proof of being fully vaccinated or a negative COVID test within 72 hours” of the meeting to attend the dinner. The accepted tests are antigen, rapid or PCR), but not antibody tests. Masking is required on all occasions – meetings, dinner and networking – the organization said.

During a meeting of Wausau School District Board of Education on Monday, vice president James Bouche told his colleagues that those safety measures would be implemented for their regional meeting on Oct. 13 in Rothschild. Bouche represents Region 5 – which includes 34 area school boards – on the WASB.

The directive comes as the district continues to hear debate about mask use from parents, teachers and students on both sides of the issue.

Although COVID-19 safety protocols were not on Monday’s WSD Board meeting agenda, the topic figured prominently during public comments (and written comments) as well as during the discussion among Board members.

Board President Pat McKee said that the next meeting of the Board Education and Operations Committee on Sept. 27 would include three items for discussion and possible action at the request of a Board member: face coverings for all students and staff in school buildings, having staff resume contact tracing and adding a virtual option for elementary school students. These topics could be taken up earlier if school superintendent Keith Hilts suggested he had enough data based on the COVID-19 related safety and mitigation measures, McKee said.

Hilts is working with D.C. Everest School Superintendent,Kristine Gilmore, to flesh out a joint strategy on COVID for both districts. A number of parents, community members, including some on the Board, had requested McKee place COVID-19 safety measures on this week’s agenda, but that action would have had to come from school administrators, he said.

Both districts, like other area schools, are facing multitude of challenges, including threats of loss of insurance by failing to implement some safety strategies. Hilts also clarified that President Joe Biden’s directive on vaccination in schools did not apply to district schools. Biden’s directive covers programs like Head Start and those run by federal agencies like the Department of Defense and Bureau of Indian Education.

During the public comments phase of the WSD Board meeting on Monday night some people spoke in favor of the current optional mask policy while others asked the nine-member body to require mandatory masking in schools.

Those opposed to children wearing masks in schools cited a variety of reasons ranging from anxiety, struggles to breathe freely and a tendency for masks to cause rashes on the face. Others cited their right of personal choice and liberty and consider mask mandates unconstitutional and a violation of their human rights.

Rachel Thao spoke about mask hygiene and pointed out that masks wouldn’t be effective if people touched them.

Some who spoke against masks spread misinformation widely-debunked theories about the coronavirus. Vicky Loveland, for example, claimed that COVID-19 is simply a version of the flu. But the novel coronavirus is not a strain of flu, is far more contagious and spreads more quickly. Symptoms also appear to take longer to appear than flu. Many cases are asymptomatic, aiding in transmission by unsuspecting carriers, medical experts say.

And Courtney Ravn wrote in to claim that National Institute of Health Director Dr Francis Collins’ said masks did not protect against COVID-19. But Dr. Collins has repeatedly said masks do work. He even called anti-mask mandates “heartbreaking.”

Some parents, like Jackie Arrowood, were worried about the effect of masking on children who had medical conditions. She wrote that her twins have cognitive delay and autism. “They struggled wearing masks last year,” Arrowood said.

Those in favor of masking in school, cited public health agencies’ recommendation on indoor mask requirements and say that not following those guidelines put schildren at greater risk of COVID-19 infection.

Laura J. Beltz wrote that she was concerned that proven mitigation strategies were not being utilized.

“Consider the children under 12 who aren’t yet eligible for vaccination,” she wrote. “Also please consider people like my son who take immunosuppressive medications.”

Dr. Bart Hobson said that some on the board have a mistaken idea about the purpose of public health.

“Unlike instances of personal health decisions, where patients are allowed considerable individual choice in which measures they take for their care or the care of their dependents, public health decisions are made for the benefit of the public at large,” he wrote. “The more our behavior impacts the public’s health, the more we must agree to modify our behavior for everyone’s sake. A viral pandemic is a public health emergency and the steps needed to control it require the cooperation of the public.”

Board members are continuing to clash as well. Board member Jane Rusch, in public comments on Monday, made an explosive charge against Board President McKee, accusing him of hiring an attorney with taxpayer money to find a strategy to silence her.

Rusch shared an Aug. 17 email from McKee asking attorney Kirk Strang for a legal opinion on whether a board member could speak during the public comment phase before she spoke at an Aug. 23 meeting.

“I recall you stating that a board member is prohibited from signing up for public comment as they are part of the governing body to which the meeting agenda applies,” McKee wrote in his email. “I believe it was said that courts have been very clear on this issue.” Strang advises education clients on “issues related to their status as governmental bodies, including open meetings, public records, search and seizure, and public contracting and bidding,” his firm’s website states. He also advises schools and higher education institutions on the range of issues that are unique to educators and educational institutions, including pupil rights and discipline, pupil services, employment relations, administrator and teacher contracting, pupil transportation, regulation of co-curricular activities, open enrollment and residency, and other matters that are central to educational institutions’ day to day operations.

Unclear is whether the district will be charged for the opinion and Rusch said so far no bill has been received. Neither McKee nor Hilts responded to requests for confirmation and comment.

During her comments, Rusch responded to a speaker’s claim about liberty. She cited a Supreme Court ruling on the matter: “‘One man’s liberty cannot deprive his neighbors of their own liberty — in this case by allowing the spread of disease.’”

The safety of students and staff in school has become a controversial issue in Wausau and area schools. Some board members on both sides have faced abuse both online and in person. Alarmed by attacks and abuses against school board members, the WASB Executive Director issued a renewed call for civility – a statement that was read by Board member Ka Lo at the board meeting on Monday.

Vitriol was also directed at some high school students.

Megan Marohl, who supports masking in schools, said she was called a “communist” by an adult in response to her view. Addressing the WSD Board, she said the decision about safety of students in schools should not be made by parents and accused the board of being reactive. She added her peers had no problems in using masks in schools, but rather it was the parents who were coming in the way.

Speaking with Wausau Pilot & Review, she said she was surprised by the attack, which was made by a caller from an unknown number. “I really don’t know why I was singled out.”

Damakant Jayshi is a reporter for Wausau Pilot & Review. He is also a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of GroundTruth Project that places journalists into local newsrooms. Reach him at damakant@wausaupilotandreview.com.