That was the overwhelming sentiment expressed by the 36 persons who spoke on both sides of the masking debate during the School District of Fort Atkinson Board of Education meeting Thursday night.
A majority of the speakers encouraged school district officials to base their decision-making during the COVID-19 pandemic on hard science and current data from the county on rising numbers of positive cases.
The Jefferson County Health Department Thursday urged the district to immediately implement the “universal use of face masks for all students and faculty, except when medically inappropriate, as the most practical and effective tool to prevent widespread in-school transmission.”
Another segment of speakers in the capacity crowd in the Luther Elementary board room, however, strongly discouraged or outright opposed the use of masks in schools, arguing that a mask mandate violated their rights to parent their children as they saw fit and was akin to government overreach.
Some anti-maskers espoused belief in God to provide protection against the virus, along with enabling people to develop a natural immunity through proper diet and exercise.
During the hour-long public comment portion, which was extended twice to allow everyone in the audience a chance to speak, speakers largely implored school officials to reinstate a mask mandate for the safety and well-being of the children.
In the end, following the public comments, board members voted 4-1, with member Amy Reynolds opposed, to now require face coverings in all indoor spaces where children are present, with the exception of when an individual is actively eating or drinking, through the next regular board meeting on Oct. 26, 2021, when the issue could be revisited.
A number of audience members periodically held up small signs registering their approval or disapproval for another speaker’s stance on the masking issue.
CommentsJennfer Slak, whose oldest daughter is in kindergarten at Barrie Elementary School, said, “This is not how we thought the beginning of her school career would look. So many fears and uncertainties. This is supposed to be a happy and exciting time — it’s not!
She thought the school board would have made the “safest decision” for students like it had in the past.
“Several businesses in town are requiring masks of their employees, so adults can keep adults safe, but members of our school board can’t do the same for our kids — I just don’t understand,” Slak said. “Every time I drop my daughter off at school I pray she doesn’t see the fear in my eyes from the thought of having to leave her where I don’t feel she is safe.”
COVID cases are increasing, she said, reaching levels not seen since last spring when the mask mandate was enforced in the schools.
“My husband and I made the decision this week to pull our daughter out of school due to the growing number of cases at Barrie,” Slak said. “We hated doing this to her—she loves school — but the Delta variant is spreading rapidly.”
She said she respects some families wanting to make decisions for their children on certain matters, but “this is not just a choice for your child — you’re making the choice for mine as well.”
“Every time you gather in large groups, unmasked, you are running the risk of bringing the infection to my child,” Slak said, breaking into tears. “This choice affects everyone, and our kids deserve a safe place to learn and grow.
“Masks are a small inconvenience but can save lives,” she added. “Science and our own experience from this past spring shows that it helps prevent the spread of this virus. Our kids need us, and they need your help. We need a mask mandate and we need it now.”
Slak urged the board to amend current practices to include contact tracing, quarantining of exposed children and, most importantly, a mask requirement.
“That’s really the least we can do for some of the most important people in our lives,” she said, drawing applause.
John Wirski said he respects that people have their own points of view on whether to mask up or not, but that “we are looking at protecting our most vulnerable.”
“Kids can’t speak for themselves — they can’t advocate for themselves,” Wirski said. “They’re counting on their parents, their teachers, police officers — the whole community to stick up for them and guide them, and ensure that they have the best, the healthiest path to adulthood.
“It’s a piece of cloth,” he said of masks. “I’m very much pro-masking, and understand why some people don’t want to … but I don’t think it really applies when it comes to highly congested areas like a school classroom where kids are together, shoulder to shoulder, and are facing not only their classmates but the lifestyles in each family that’s reflected there.”
Regardless of whether or not a person has been vaccinated or wears a mask, he or she still can carry and transmit the COVID-19 virus, Wirski stated.
“You may be asymptomatic — you may have no idea in the world that you’re carrying it, be totally fine and pass it on,” he said. “So I just ask that we consider that and what we’re actually paying.
“It’s a piece of cloth for several months, who knows how long, until the children can get vaccinated,” Wirski concluded. “I think we owe it to our most vulnerable and depending citizens, our children, to look out for them and take care of them.”
Cheryl Costa said board members should not be pressured into making choices for everyone.
“We all need to take charge and make our own choices, whether to mask our children or not,” Costa said. “Your job as a school board is to guide us in education, guide our children with the best education we can give them here in our small community.
“It is not to tell everybody to wear a mask or not,” she added. “If they choose to wear a mask, great. I, for one, do not believe we need to be living in fear. I’m sorry a lot of these people are afraid — I get it. I’m afraid sometimes, too. But masking our healthy children isn’t the right way to go.”
She said people must take care of themselves however they deem best.
“And if you would like to mask your child and send them to school, I’m there every day,” Costa continued. “I see lots of children in masks, I see lots of our staff in masks. Great — you do what you feel comfortable with, and the rest of us need to make that choice and do what we are comfortable with.”
Sara Anderson said she’s a parent with six children among three schools in the district.
“As COVID has changed, I was confident Fort Atkinson school district would put my children’s and everyone else’s needs in mind when making decisions that are paramount to their wellbeing,” Anderson said. “I was confident Fort Atkinson school district would set aside bias and look at the facts and science.”
She said she also was confident the district would follow Centers for Disease Control guidelines.
“I was confident sending my children back to in-person would be the right decision and was hopeful the school year would be a positive environment for them,” Anderson said. “I realized Fort Atkinson school district did not have my children’s best interest as a priority.”
She said she has lost count of the number of emails she received stating someone in her child’s class had tested positive for COVID.
“Shouldn’t that alone be a red flag?” Anderson asked. “Also, families are not given information as to what grade level has COVID. When you have more than one child in a school, this generalized email is not helpful.
“I do not understand how you can say we are 1FORT when we make decisions that are not in compliance with CDC guidelines and do not keep our children safe,” Anderson said. “Fort Atkinson school district has done nothing to eliminate transmission of this virus. Now my child is at risk due to your laid back, hands-off approach to this ever-changing situation — a situation that last year you had a handle on. You did your best to protect our children, staff and community. I thank you for that.
“This year, I cannot thank you,” she added. “I’m disappointed my children must go to a school district that is not keeping them safe.”
Some people always will take issue with what the board decides on, Anderson said.
“You are here to represent our schools and community — not please a bunch of wild, opinionated people,” she said. “Do what’s right and what’s being advised by the CDC and what has shown to work. Obviously, what we currently are doing is not working.
“One team, One district, One community … Whose team are we on?” Anderson asked.
Teri Drake, a Fort Atkinson alumnus, said she was “terribly disappointed in all of us.”
“Our community is so divided that apparently we can’t even rally together around any action to help keep each other safe during a public health crisis,” Drake said. “Now, more than ever, we need you (board) to do the job that you were entrusted to do when you were elected to the board. That is to make decisions in the best interest of a high quality, safe, public education for all students.”
Most parents agree, she said, that they want their children to be in person in the classrooms.
“While we appreciate the opportunity for all of our opinions to be heard, we urge you to listen most closely to the voices of health and safety experts when making health and safety decisions and local precautions for our children,” Drake said. “You are the leaders, and we expect you to lead in a way that gives our kids the best chance for a safe, in-person instruction.”
COVID mitigation precautions, including universal masking, she said, allowed the district to remain in-person in the spring.
“And I find it extraordinarily reckless and contradictory for us to return to pre-COVID operations now during rising pediatric cases of the highly and rapidly transmissible Delta variant,” Drake stated. “Nobody likes to wear masks, and we are all really tired of COVID mitigation practices. But these are things that we can do for each other to promote safer schools.”
Following local, state and federal health department guidance, she said, might be unpopular with many, and might even impact board members’ chances for re-election.
“But, if there was ever a time to stand up and please do the right thing for our children, it’s now!” Drake insisted. “They are watching. Mask-wearing is an act of kindness, and compassion and humility.
“I’m literally begging you, as a mom, to please protect our kids,” she concluded.
Dan Neugart said the school board has the power to protect children that even parents don’t have.
“As I see it, it’s your job to keep my kids safe when they are in your care,” Neugart said. “I urge you to choose a mask mandate that will keep our kids, faculty and staff safe. Masks obviously work or doctors or dentists would not bother with them.”
The problem, he said, is masks don’t work well if everyone isn’t wearing one. And he said young children cannot yet get vaccinated.
Now, with the district’s virtual option gone, Neugart asked “what choice do I have as a parent? The best I can do is send them (to school) with a mask and hope.”
He said his kids don’t complain about wearing masks, that it’s just a natural part of what they do now when going out.
“They understand this is temporary and it keeps them safe, as well as their classmates, teachers and parents,” Neugart said. “And that attitude is because of what we have modeled in our home.”
He pointed out that the school board has approved policies and procedures that protect students from possible threats “from tornadoes to fires to, dare I say, an active shooter.”
“Masking is just one of those protections we look to you to help us with, school board,” Neugart stated. “Saying we are 1FORT is more than putting up yard signs. Requiring masks actually put this philosophy into action, and I want to thank the faculty and staff who choose to wear masks for their leadership. Well done!
“You’ll never know if you’ve saved a life if masks are required,” he concluded. “But you will know if you lose one. Please choose a mask mandate.”
Kurt Horwath began by thanking the teachers assembled, saying Fort Atkinson has a great school district, and thanked the police officers present for keeping the crowd safe.
“I just want to remind everybody here that we are one nation, under God — this is the United States of America,” Horwath said. “We should have the freedom to make these (masking) choices for our children, and I respect every person in here that wants to wear a mask to wear a mask. And I hope they respect me for not wearing a mask.”
He said he instructs his kids to learn about and respect everyone.
“And I want to see that going both ways with everybody here that’s wearing a mask or unmasked,” Horwath said. “But we should have that choice for our own children.”
Paul Brady said people wear their seatbelt, asking “Is that a mandate, a law, (being) a good person?”
Thirty-five years ago, he said, he was on a luxury motor coach bus 200 kilometers outside of Munich, Germany, and the bus driver said, “Did you know, building the Autobahn has raised the general IQ of Germany?”
“And we said, ‘Well why?’” Brady said. “Because the bad drivers, the dumb people, killed themselves.”
So, like buckling up, he urged the wearing of masks in schools.
“You put your kids in a car seat because it’s the right thing to do,” Brady said. “Why do we fight doing good things? I want to send my kid to school. For my personal choice, I want them to be safe.
“Wear your seat belt, take your medicine, wear your mask and don’t drive on the Autobahn,” he advised.
Virginia Kubicek, from Jefferson, said there’s a lot of people in the room who “have the spirit of fear” from hearing “censored” news.
“The COVID germ is so small that it can get right through the masks that you’re wearing,” Kubicek said. “It would be like trying to stop a mosquito from going through a chain-link fence.”
As the parent of seven children, she said she tries to have them think for themselves and “use their brain.”
“Putting a mask on our kids is not going to make them safe — they need the immune system that God has given us. And it works,” Kubicek said. “If we start covering our face and staying quarantined, we aren’t giving our bodies the practice that it needs to keep itself healthy from the bad germs.”
In closing, she said, the “agenda being pushed by the Democratic Party to muzzle our kids with masks is going to prevent kids’ education because they can’t breathe, they get headaches, they get anxiety, and they’re re-breathing their carbon dioxide, so that’s hurting the little ones and their little heads can’t get fully developed like they should.”
Andy Evenson, who served a deployment to Iraq, said the public has to “admit that there’s a threat.”
“We can all agree on what we have to do to combat that threat,” Evenson said. “We have to have a plan to confront that, right? It’s being ready for a situation—that’s what life is about.
“You can be the most prepared, you are ready, and bad things still can happen,” he added, noting that “losing people you love is crushing.”
“You instruct them (kids) to do stuff every day,” Evenson said, adding he was not telling people how to parent. “But we have to keep this in the real realm with experts or doctors. And these people are saying, well, trust God, not the doctors.
“Well, you (board members) are not even listening to the highest-educated people you have,” he added. “And what a slap in the face that is. And your job as the board is to take care of these kids. Someone has to be held accountable because this is serious stuff.”
At least kids can be taught to be prepared for what’s coming in life because situations can’t always be controlled, he said.
“It’s not about passing blame,” Evenson concluded, emotionally. “It’s a mask!”
Several speakers also urged the public to not exploit for political purposes the tragic death of seventh-grader Danny Rees, a 13-year-old student at Fort Atkinson Middle School, who passed away on Tuesday. Early Thursday, on a GoFundMe site, his mother, Tammy Rees, had posted that the family had tested positive for COVID-19.
Michelle Green shared her emotions regarding a text message that was sent out discussing the Rees family and their son who passed away.
“It (text message) made me physically ill,” Green said. “I respect that we all have our reasons for our sides that we are taking. But I want to make sure you understand my reaction.
“First and foremost, this poor family needs the respect to their privacy — they have lost a child,” she added. “It is their mourning we need to respect as they are, I’m sure, anguished with sorrow. Instead of wrapping our arms around this family, and having compassion, this child’s passing has become a tool in a war of sides on who is right and who is wrong in wearing and not wearing a mask.”
As a registered nurse, she said she has been in the health care profession for 21 years.
“As a nurse we are trained to be compassionate and look at the patient as a whole, and not the hole in the patient,” Green said. “I am saddened by this text message that has gone out as they are not looking at the whole picture. This family has lost a child that they loved dearly and will never be able to give him one last hug or kiss goodnight.”
She urged people to “have grace” toward the Rees family and be compassionate regardless of what side of the masking issue they are on.
“Instead of worrying about all people of Fort and Jefferson County attending the meeting in masks, why not worry about the big picture of who we have become,” Green said. “This is so devastatingly sad that we are using this family’s anguish of their child’s dying less than 24 hours from his passing.
“Regardless of what side we are on, we need to get back to learning again to be compassionate human beings,” she added.
Jessica Rusch, a pediatric nurse, thanked each of the board members for having the courage to represent kids during such difficult times.
“I typically wouldn’t speak, but I am frustrated at those who wear masks at these meetings and push for them in schools,” Rusch said. “And then we see you in public places, stores, Badger games, concerts, Summerfest enjoying your lives without a mask. There’s no room for hypocritical behavior here.”
She said she works in critical care, so her perspective comes from 23 years in health care.
“I have always loved Fort (Atkinson) and I’m proud to live here,” Rusch said. “But I am disappointed. I am embarrassed how adults have acted and turned against each other. We are the role models for these children. Can we agree that they have gone through enough.”
The past 18 months have been hard, she said, with children hearing and feeling what is transpiring.
“Can we agree that the health and safety of students is our priority,” Rusch said. “If so, I’m growing very impatient with the constant talk about fear, and nothing about what we can do to be healthier. Social distance, sanitize everything — it’s no wonder we’re getting sick. Our immune systems need germs to be healthy to protect us.
“Our bodies have been fighting viruses our entire lives,” she added. “COVID isn’t going anywhere. A strong you is the answer to this virus.”
So said parents can keep their child home when they are sick, and teach them simple things like wash their hands and don’t touch their face.
“We can put more effort into eating healthy and increasing our physical activity,” Rusch said. “There’s a lot of focus on physical health. Does it matter if our children are physically healthy if they are emotionally depressed and lack human connection and purpose? They have emotional, spiritual, social and mental needs as well.”
As health care professionals, she said it is unethical to treat just one area of a child’s life.
“Kids need smiles, love and belonging,” Rusch said. “We are the sickest people in the world — It is time we take personal responsibility for our health. Be proactive instead of reactive so our God-given immune system can protect us the way we were designed to.”
As a pediatric nurse for 15 years, she learned quickly to work with parents on how best to care for their child.
“I would never stand here and tell you what is best for your child, and I expect that same courtesy,” Rusch continued. “All I’m asking is that we stop judging each other and be kinder to one another.”
She said a board member reminded everyone that, at the end of the day, Fort Atkinson is one community.
“We lost a student this week,” Rush said. “My deepest condolences and prayers go to this family. I pray for those that are using such a tragedy for your agenda, and I am deeply saddened and my heart hurts for us as a community. How did we get here? Please show some love and compassion for this family as they endure such a great loss.
“Parents, we can do better,” she concluded. “Our kids need us to do better.”