JEFFERSON — With hundreds of community members present and about three dozen speakers, public sentiment at Monday night’s Jefferson school board meeting tipped strongly against requiring masks in schools.
The public comment period stretched for hours, with only a handful of speakers in favor of continuing the district’s existing mandate and the vast majority against.
In the end, the weight of public sentiment tipped the board’s own vote the other direction, with two members reversing their prior votes to eliminate the mask requirement and relax contact tracing/quarantine measures.
Monday night’s meeting was more contentious than the August one in which the mask mandate was instated, which drew a couple dozen community attendees and several speakers, and at which the tone remained respectful.
Monday’s meeting was more heated.
Asked not to clap after speakers in order to speed the meeting along and give everyone a chance to speak, audience members nonetheless showed their opinions by applauding and cheering for some speakers, with occasional interruptions and shouts as the evening wore on.
The Daily Union did not capture every speaker’s name, or even every speaker’s comments, as some did not speak audibly, but the general tenor of public comment was clear: most speakers wanted masks to be a choice, not a requirement.
Melissa Walhovd led off the public comment period, advocating in favor of a continued mask mandate while COVID-19 transmission remains high.
Walhovd said district decision-makers should weigh in on the side of accommodating all students and allowing them to participate fully in school activities.
“All means all,” Walhovd said. “Every student is entitled to an equal education and equal opportunity. That’s not just for the healthy. It’s not just for those in the majority. It’s not just for the wealthy.”
She said the school district should protect the most vulnerable students, such as those who are medically frail or those too young to get vaccinated.
She said she was sickened by debates over “virtual Fridays” last year in which people questioned the need for a virtual day designed specifically to help teachers and other school officials accommodate students who were studying virtually.
Walhovd noted that school districts have long made accommodations which require some level of sacrifice to protect everyone’s health, such as restricting certain allergens in the schools to protect the rare child with a food allergy, or requiring helmets and mouth guards to ward off potential serious sport injuries.
“I happen to be the parent of a medically fragile, at-risk child who deserves to be treated with respect,” Walhovd said.
She also urged board members to consider the safety of staff members, their extended families and those they encounter in their outside lives.
Next to speak was Cher Metcalf, who asserted that masks aren’t being used right, rendering them fairly useless. She cited frequent instances of kids — or even board members — touching their masks, and the likelihood that a mask would come home wet, filthy and covered with snot.
“People have a right to choose about their own medical interventions,” Metcalf.
A worker at a nursing home, Metcalf said she had one patient who would not wash and “did not smell like roses,” but she could not force that person to wash. It turns out, she said, that this woman had been abused in childhood by being thrown into scalding hot showers.
Likewise, people should have the choice on whether to send their child to school in a mask or not, she said.
Heidi Jennrich, a pediatric nurse practitioner at Fort HealthCare, took a different view.
“I’d love to say the pandemic is over,” Jennrich said. “I am exhausted. I’d love to go back to normal.”
However, she said, the pandemic still is raging and COVID-19 is not the flu. There is no cure and it doesn’t necessarily go away in a few days. In fact, many people — even those whose initial course of the disease was classified as “mild” — can suffer long-term effects, like heart damage.
In addition, Jennrich said, with the arrival of the much-more transmissible Delta variant, not only were more people getting sick, but they were coming in to the hospital sicker — and younger.
She described trying to find a hospital bed for a teen hospitalized for COVID and contacting facilities both in Madison and Milwaukee before a space could be found.
In the face of these possibilities, she asserted, a mask is a small sacrifice to keep children in school and learning, and to prevent long-term health effects.
Two students, Keirah Sterwald and Mariah Wagner, shared their time at the microphone, echoing the general sentiment in the room.
“It should be a choice how we get to breathe,” Sterwald said.
Parent Georgia McWilliam credited school officials with trying to do their best during a year-plus of unprecedented challenges, but begged school board members to leave the mask choice up to parents.
She asserted that mandatory mask-wearing increases isolation and damages students’ mental health.
McWilliam cited large increases in mental health issues among teens, linking that to mask wearing, although there are many other contributing factors that experts have cited for the rise, chief among them the isolation students experienced when schools went virtual.
McWilliam, who served many years as head of the Jefferson Middle School Parent-Teacher Organization, said she does not want parents to be told to open-enroll their students elsewhere.
Finally, she said she would remember how school board members voted when it came time for her to cast her ballot at the next school board election.
Dr. Donald Williams, an area physician who has taken care of many Jefferson families over the last four decades plus, advocated in favor of masks.
Early in his career, he said, much of his time was dedicated to infectious diseases that no longer are as big a problem due to vaccines and advances in treatment.
We are not at that point with COVID-19, he said, especially with the emergence of the Delta variant.
“We know masks work,” Williams said. “They work best to prevent me from giving COVID to you, if I am infected,” he said. Secondarily, he said, they have some mitigating effect, cutting the risk the person wearing them might catch the disease — but this effect is not nearly as strong as the protection the mask provides against an infected person passing the disease along to others.
Incidentally, while youngsters pretty much all were wearing masks last year, the incidence of influenza went down dramatically as masks prevented the transmission of that disease as well.
While children generally have gotten off with milder cases of COVID-19 than adults have experienced, that’s changing somewhat with the Delta variant.
“This new variant is harder on pediatric patients,” Williams said. “Our pediatric ICUs are now burdened with Delta patients.”
The physician said that while masks are a nuisance, they are justified to prevent potential death or disability, or long-term effects of COVID-19 which only just are beginning to be studied.
Sofia Brynman-Metcalf was joined by another young speaker to advocate against the mask mandate. They compared Jefferson to Oconomowoc and Arrowhead, both larger districts, which have not mandated masks.
One of the students referenced the freedom of choice afforded even to nursing home residents, saying, “We cannot make anyone do what they don’t want, no matter how bad their dementia is.”
One teen, a three-sport athlete, said required masks have aggravated her asthma.
Savannah Serdynski, of Sullivan, said the mask policy unfairly “targets girls volleyball” which is played indoors, as opposed to unmasked outdoor games and full stands of unmasked spectators.
Tracy Clark of Sullivan asked whether the district’s wellness committee was consulted before the most recent changes were made to the district’s COVID-19 protocols.
She said the new policy doesn’t align with existing school dress codes, stating that the mandate has created unneeded divisions.
Jessica Olson of Jefferson also spoke against the mask mandate, saying the requirement is very hard on her children, a couple of whom have attention deficit or attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
In addition, the quarantine rules as they stand have caused her children to miss too much school, further challenging their ability to learn.
Christina Cass of Helenville asserted that there are natural ways to prevent the transmission of the virus without resorting to masks, further stating that it’s her right to make health decisions for her child.
Ashley Smith of Jefferson said the masks are not sterile and it’s unnecessary for a healthy person to wear a mask.
“Kids have a 99.99 percent survival rate, and .... their childhood is being stripped away from them,” Smith said.
Educator and parent Tabitha Flatt, of Helenville, focused her remarks on the contact tracing/quarantine rules which are causing children to miss an untenable amount of school.
“I acknowledge that Delta appears to be be more contagious,” Flatt said.
She also stated that epidemiologists should be trusted as experts in their field, while noting that their job is to focus on the physical effects of the virus.
However, excessive quarantines have serious academic and mental health consequences, she said, asserting that the district should return to the looser restrictions laid out in the plan approved in the summer.
Matt Rupp of Sullivan said the death rates for COVID-19 were low, and that mask mandates were overzealous and seemingly without end.
“I am up here concerned about when this mandate ends,” he said.
A speaker whose name could not be clearly heard said she caught the virus from her husband “wearing a mask,” and that her family survived the experience.
She said virtual instruction didn’t work for her “spirited son” and that being sent home for the slightest symptoms actively hampered his education.
“At the end of the day, let us be parents,” she said.
Scott Luebke of Sullivan said his children were “homeschooled” last year, as they will not wear masks, and subsequently he pulled his kids out of the district altogether, taking a second job to enroll them in a private school.
Brian Henfer, also of Sullivan, said Centers for Disease Control recommendations hold little value for him.
He said his 3-year-old is not able to do speech therapy adequately in a mask, and he is against “the idea of drawing breath all day through a damp cloth.”
Henfer alleged that the district did not make the results of a parent survey available to the public, although, as a point of order, Superintendent Charles Urness noted that he had presented the results of the survey at the July board meeting and that information is available via the district’s website.
“You are suffocating my kids,” said parent Matt Wolfe of Helenville, asking if the district is concerned about teachers’ health why they don’t get medical-grade N95 masks.
Gina Crotteau of Jefferson said she enrolled two students in Jefferson High School due to the “mask-optional” policy that existed at the time.
She said she was disappointed that policy changed right before schools opened, saying that her children have an extremely difficult time wearing them and she is not convinced they work.
Justin Wichel of Jefferson offered a prayer before giving his comments, asking that people “turn from their wicked ways.”
Wichel characterized the previous school board meeting as “disrespectful to parents,” saying he had chosen to enroll his children in St. John Lutheran instead of the public schools.
That concluded the list of speakers who officially had signed up to address the board, but many more added their voices after that, with the public comment period extended several times.
Most of these names were inaudible, although a good portion of the crowd had stopped wearing masks at that time, urged by one of the speakers to “stop being hypocrites.”
Nicole Miller said her child has suffered anxiety and depression since taking a full year of virtual instruction this year.
Now back in-person, the student now is concerned by the COVID-19 protocols and anxious about the effect of masks, especially during things like physical fitness testing.
Other parents repeated many of the concerns expressed earlier, questioning the effect of missed school from quarantine and children forced to be at home when both parents work; the efficacy of masks, especially when used wrong; stress on students from being singled out for not wearing their masks correctly; and other similar concerns.
“I didn’t hire you to be my doctor; I hired you to be my teachers,” said one man, who identified himself by what appeared to be a rude phrase rather than a name when he addressed the board.
Student Jaden Gallenberg Staffeil said trying to wear a mask while wrestling, combined with canceled matches, ruined his wrestling career.