A total of 36 persons on both sides of the masking debate addressed the School District of Fort Atkinson Board of Education Thursday, with a decided majority emphatically encouraging the wearing of face coverings while others strongly opposed their use, arguing that a mask mandate violated their rights to parent their children as they see fit.
During the hour-long public comment portion of the meeting, 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 wellbeing of the children.
Periodically, a number of audience members held up small signs expressing their approval or disapproval for another speaker’s stance on the masking issue. While a police presence was on hand, Thursday’s public comments were conducted in a civil manner.
Several speakers urged everyone to not “politicize” 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.
On Thursday, prior to their regular meeting, board members conducted a special emergency closed session at which they reportedly were updated on details surrounding the student’s death.
Following Thursday’s public comments and discussion, 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 Oct. 26. At that time, the board is expected to revisit the school operations issue.
The effects of the board’s action are that face coverings now will be required for all adults and children in all district facilities; adults only would be required to wear a face covering when in a space with children; face coverings are optional for all outdoor activities for adults and children; and face coverings can be removed by children while eating breakfast or lunch.
The board cited the rising number of COVID-19 cases throughout Jefferson County and within the school district in deciding to take the new mitigation measure to help prevent further spread of COVID-19 among students, staff and community.
County health advisory
On Thursday, Gail Scott, Jefferson County Public Health Officer with the Jefferson County Health Department, issued an advisement letter addressed to the board of education, superintendent and all schools within the School District of Fort Atkinson.
In the letter, she issued COVID-19 protections for the Fort Atkinson school district and “advises that any school within the school district which has not implemented COVID-19 mitigation protocols do so immediately to protect the health, safety and welfare of students.”
Over the past week, she said, cases of COVID-19 within Jefferson County and the Fort Atkinson school district have “increased dramatically and rapidly. Hospitals are facing staffing shortages and increased hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients, and Jefferson County Health Department staff are overwhelmed with new cases and associated disease investigation. While we have faced surges in the past, this circumstance we find ourselves in today is markedly different and the primary cause is clearly observed.”
The age group most afflicted by this increase in cases, Scott noted, are youth under the age of 18, with 28 percent of all cases from Aug. 30 onward occurring in this age group, compared to 21 percent of all cases occurring in that age group when considering cases from Aug. 1 onward.
“In the past 2 weeks, the Jefferson County Health Department has confirmed as many cases in this age group as were confirmed during the entire month of August at which time Jefferson County faced similarly high rates of infection,” Scott said. “Via disease investigation by the health department and aided by school nurses and other staff, uncontrolled and in-school transmission of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) has been well documented in several instances where close contacts of a positively confirmed individual have also been confirmed positive within subsequent days.”
She said students in Jefferson County are entitled to a safe learning environment, and that “currently is not in place for students in the Fort Atkinson school district, evidenced by the spread of infections within the school leading to outbreaks in high school, middle school and elementary school.
“This week alone, 23 Fort Atkinson school district students to-date have tested positive, many of whom attended school while infectious,” Scott added in the letter. “This number is likely to increase over the coming days and weeks if mitigation measures are not implemented immediately.”
Students in the School District of Fort Atkinson have returned this fall to full-time in-person instruction. And while COVID-19 mitigations are in place, mask-wearing was made optional.
Earlier this month, the board took no action on a mask mandate, thereby making the wearing of masks a choice for all students and staff, in all district buildings, for the start of the 2021-22 school year.
District Administrator Rob Abbott explained the rationale for the new restrictions.
“The board has received public comments from a number of different people, really, unsurprisingly, on two different sides of an issue where, I think, everyone has the same idea of wanting to have kids in school and learning in front of our teachers and staff with a difference of opinion as to how best to make that happen,” Abbott said, following the meeting. “Unfortunately, this has become a win or lose depending on your point of view.”
And Thursday night was no different, he said.
“We definitely heard from people on both sides of the masking discussion, but at the end of the day, the board, (with schools) having been in session for a couple of weeks, felt like they needed to make an adjustment to how we’ve been operating,” Abbott said. “So we have been operating in a much more ‘as in the past process’ which is what families shared that they wanted and what we (district) were looking to do in starting up the school year.”
Ultimately, he said, the board decided to make an adjustment based on an uptick in COVID-19 cases and some spread in the schools, and new information from the county health department “that things could change very, very rapidly if we (district) don’t make a change.”
One of the concerns being heard from some parents, he said, is — given that the district has not been requiring face coverings — the district is not actively doing case by case, deep contact tracing of COVID-positive persons in another mitigation change from this year.
“Admittedly there was some confusion,” Abbott said. “We believe that (contact tracing) is a responsibility of the county health department — it’s part of the function of the county health department.”
During an hour-long discussion, the school board mulled whether to mandate masks for all students or only for the lower grade levels where students are not able to be vaccinated. In the end, school officials opted for mandatory masks when children are present to help prevent further absences for students who must be quarantined.
“We’re at a point where any absence is an absence too much,” Abbott said. “We have a slightly different perspective than we did a month ago.”
Board President Mark Chaney emphasized that when parents drop their kids off to school, teachers essentially become surrogate parents to those children who are entrusted in their care for up to eight hours a day.
“Whether you believe it, we (teachers and administrators) are tasked with keeping your kids safe,” Chaney said, noting that the board now has “an opportunity to stop this” virus.
In giving his school operations update, prior to the board’s vote, the superintendent said: “We know kids learn best face to face. Let’s work to keep our kids in school.”
In looking at COVID-19 data since Sept. 1, Abbott said “The School District of Fort Atkinson has had 27 students with reported positive cases since the start of the school year. Since school has been in session, the number of staff members with a positive case has been too small to release to protect the privacy of staff involved.”
Of the 27 student cases reported, 21 are actively in isolation or quarantine, he noted.