Mask signs

During a spirited public debate, local resident Cher Metcalf addresses the Jefferson school board Monday, speaking out against mask mandates at the local schools. After the public comment and board discussion, board members voted to overturn that provision and to ease quarantine measures in the district.

JEFFERSON — My body, my choice.

My child, my choice.

In another era, these signs might have made an appearance at an abortion rights rally.

But in the context of Monday night’s Jefferson school board meeting, no one had any doubt that these phrases referred to the district’s controversial mask mandate.

Jefferson and Lake Mills are the only districts in the county to establish a mask mandate at the start of this school year. And before Monday’s meeting was over, two school board members had reversed their prior votes, ending the requirement.

An audience of hundreds filled the Jefferson High School auditorium, and even before the final school board vote, the masks most had worn into the auditorium had been ripped off.

Ahead of the vote, the district heard from dozens of speakers. Of these, only four spoke in favor of the mask requirement: the parent of a child cancer survivor, a pediatric nurse, a longtime area doctor, and a parent who works at a nursing home.

The rest spoke out against masks, asserting that the face coverings caused their children stress and mental anguish, made it difficult to breathe and hindered child development.

Scattered around the auditorium were large, regularly sized signs that carried statements like “Mask Mandate is Tyranny,” “Not Our Dictator” and “You Work for Us.”

Epidemiologist

First, the board heard from county epidemiologist Samroz Jakvani, who noted that the county’s rolling average of COVID-19 cases is at 19 a day, up from an average between zero to 2 over the summer.

Meanwhile, local positivity rates are at about 20 percent, he said, quite a bit higher than the 5 percent epidemiologists would like to see to be able to control virus spread throughout the community.

In August, the county saw an “astronomical increase” in COVID-19 cases as the more infectious Delta variant rolled in, with six deaths recorded since this surge began.

The worst effects of the disease are still seen among older people, although the people coming into hospitals are younger and younger, as the oldest age group is the most highly vaccinated, Jakvani said.

With area schools having been open for only two weeks, it’s still really early to see the effects of the mask mandate (or lack thereof) in area schools, he said.

However, Jakvani noted that there had been COVID-19 cases in the run-up to the school year among sports teams. In-school transmissions remained minimal and mostly occurred in districts without mask mandates, although there was one case of a child in a school that required masking being infected by a seatmate during an unmasked lunch period, he said.

In other countries the Delta variant has already swept through, the disease hit hard early and then petered off, so following that model, Jakvani said that case rates might decrease in the next two to three weeks, “but the opening of schools may complicate that.”

Jakvani then addressed common concerns submitted by parents and other concerned district residents via Google Form ahead of Monday’s meeting.

Masks work, he assured attendees, saying they prevent the vast majority of exhaled droplets from spreading to other people.

That’s how the virus spreads, he said, via droplets. Individual virus particles, while extremely small, are not generally found on their own, but rather travel through the air in large and fine droplets and to some degree, aerosols.

Asked about whether masks block oxygen or cause carbon dioxide to build up, Jakvani said these are gases and they go right through the mask, while droplets are trapped.

“We know without doubt that masks reduce COVID-19 transmission,” he said, saying that they are safe for children age 2 and up, and noting that surgeons wear them every day.

As to masks’ impact on emotional well-being and social impact, he said there could be some minor impact, but that is alleviated by unmasked outside activities and interactions.

As to mental health impacts, Jakvani acknowledged that there has been a significant increase in mental health concerns among adults, children and teens in the wake of all the disruptions caused by the pandemic — including isolation, virtual school struggles, job losses and general instability, not to mention the impact the disease itself has had on some families.

“However, it is a mistake to conflate the impact of the pandemic (as a whole) to wearing masks (in specific),” he said, stating that there is no evidence backing this conclusion.

While most children have not generally been seriously impacted by COVID-19, the Delta variant has been causing stronger effects in children, he said.

Also worth considering are concerns that infected children could spread the disease to more vulnerable adults, Jakvani said, or that they could themselves develop “long COVID,” which does happen to a percentage of youngsters and adults, whether or not their initial case was considered to be mild.

After Jakvani’s presentation, the board opened up the floor to parent comments and concerns. Around 20 people had signed up to speak ahead of time, and after that, the board extended the time period for public comment multiple times so that all present who wished to speak could add their input.

(See related story for parent comments.)

Board discussionAfter all of the public comment wrapped up, close to 10 p.m., board members had the opportunity to debate the issue further before taking a final vote.

Board member Tanya Ball said that she stood with the parents in the audience, the common theme of whose comments is that they wanted to have the freedom to decide what was best for their children.

She said the mask requirement was “creating a division that didn’t have to be there” and called on the board members who voted in favor of the requirement the previous month to reverse their stance.

“Your role is to be responsive to the beliefs and value of the community,” Ball said.

Dick Lovett, who had previously voted for the mandate, thanked every speaker for their passion and advocacy.

“Everyone sees things in different shades,” he said. “I hope you understand we all care. We care for you. We care for the district. We care for parents.

“Our goal is that all students have the ability to learn,” he said, noting that education encompasses more than just academics.

To move forward in the best interests of all children, he said the board and community need to work together as a team.

In the interest of “healing,” he said he was changing his vote.

Board member Thomas Condon said that he felt the district’s hardline approach to quarantines in particular was hurting students by causing them to miss critical instruction and social interaction.

“If there’s no virtual option, and at this point I don’t think we’re allowed to have a virtual option, kids are missing a lot of school,” Condon said.

Seth Ebel, who had voted in favor of the mask mandate and related mitigations in August in response to the Delta surge, said he understands a lot of the parents’ frustrations.

However, he still wanted to trust the experts who assert “these are the best measures we can take to keep our kids in school, to keep them learning,” Ebel said.

In the interests of serving all students, staff and community members, including the most vulnerable among them, he said he had to vote his conscience to continue with masks for now.

“It is not our choice,” Ball said. “It is their choice,” she said, referring to the parents in the audience.

After questioning the credentials of the epidemiologist, who is working on his doctorate but does not yet have a Ph.D., Condon moved to amend the district’s COVID-19 protocols back to what the board had approved earlier in August, making masks optional and relaxing the contact tracing and quarantine rules.

When the final vote came, school board members Dick Lovett and Matthew Peltier reversed their earlier votes to go with the majority in striking the mask and more stringent contact tracing requirements, with Ebel and board President Terri Wenkman voting to keep COVID-19 protocols at their existing level.

Repeating their “no masks” vote from August were Ball, Condon and Fleming.

After the vote, as the room erupted in cheers from the audience, a couple of board members addressed the need to respect people of all opinions.

Fleming, though he had voted against the mask mandate two times, said “I don’t think it’s fair everyone sits there pointing fingers at certain board members ... If we act disrespectful as a parent, what do you think we are modeling for our kids?”

Wenkman addressed some speakers’ criticism that the school board did not represent the community.

“Every board is stronger when there is debate,” she said. “When there is disagreement and debate, that is a board that completely represents our constituents. If everyone always thinks the same, that is when there is stagnation,” she said.

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