Local School Districts Reject Masking Guidance from Pediatric Leader

For now, only Gibraltar is preparing universal-masking order

Pediatric health adviser Dr. Amy Fogarty recommends that Door County schools make masks mandatory for all students and staff members, but so far, only one public-school board, Gibraltar, has heeded that guidance.

As of Aug. 20, St. John Bosco parochial school in Sturgeon Bay had been the only school in Door County requiring all students and staff members to wear facial coverings. That changed Aug. 23 when Gibraltar School District Superintendent Tina Van Meer told the school board that she is prepared, within the next two days, to order universal mask-wearing inside school buildings and vehicles for all staff members, teachers, parents and students. Notification is expected to be sent this week.

Previously, Gibraltar was going to require masks only for students in sixth grade and younger in the elementary sections of the building. After receiving information and intensive-care case data from Door County Medical Center (DCMC), state and federal agencies and DCMC’s Fogarty, who’s providing pediatric recommendations for the county, Van Meer said she needs to follow their advice and require mask-wearing to keep students and employees safe.

“All I can do is keep this environment as low risk as possible,” Van Meer said.

Multiple Gibraltar school board members spoke in favor and support of Van Meer’s proposal. 

A year ago, school districts followed Centers for Disease Control (CDC) advice, embraced Fogarty’s suggestions and took many precautions, including assigning lunchroom seats, requiring masks, cleaning regularly, installing Plexiglas barriers and establishing online-learning and teaching-from-home scenarios. 

That was before scientists studying COVID-19 had solid information about effectively preventing the spread of a new disease, Fogarty said.

“Now there’s a lot more data to say that the two things we really need to do is keep sick kids out of school and have students wear a mask,” she said.

After receiving Fogarty’s advisory, the Sevastopol, Sturgeon Bay and Southern Door school districts approved revised and slightly strengthened school-reopening plans that gave superintendents the authority in most cases to strengthen safety protocols whenever health conditions necessitated it, but they still made mask-wearing optional for students and staff. The Sturgeon Bay school board voted 6-3 to keep masks optional; the Southern Door school board kept masks optional with a 6-1 vote; and Sevastopol’s vote was 5-2 in favor of optional masking.

Seth Thomas – a health professional and parent, with his wife, Katie, of three Sevastopol schools students – urged the Sevastopol school board on Aug. 19 to require all students and staff members to wear masks so that entire classrooms of students don’t need to quarantine if one becomes infected. “Our kids need to be at school every day, so I’m here to urge you to make masking mandatory,” Thomas said. On the other hand, an opponent of required masks, Geoff Samson, thanked the board during the same meeting for keeping masks optional. Samson also said the board would see even greater resistance if it tried to make vaccinations mandatory. Photo by Craig Sterrett.

Fogarty said data have shown only a 1% COVID-19 transmission rate if children are wearing masks, even if a COVID-19-positive student was in the class. If students wear masks, only the students who have symptoms (and their siblings) get sent home for testing and/or quarantine for 10 days. If a student gets sick in a classroom where no students are wearing masks, all classmates would likely get sent home for 10 days, as well as “close contacts” with whom the ill child had been associating for more than 15 minutes at a time.

Statistics also necessitate mask-wearing for all. Fogarty said the vaccination rate among those ages 17 and 18 was only 38%, and just 33% for ages 12-16.

School board member Pamela Parks cast the only dissenting vote on optional masking in Southern Door. She said she could not support a plan that made masks optional when that plan did not conform with the pediatric medical advice and the CDC.

In Sevastopol, board member Jerry Worrick, who voted in support of optional masking, said the school board should revisit the issue if there’s a “big flare-up” within the county. Otherwise, he likened masks to a “walking petri dish after a couple of hours. It’s dark, it’s moist and it’s full of germs. Let the parents be the best judge of what they think is best for their children.”

Sevastopol board member Cindy Zellner-Ehlers, who voted for required masking, said the masks worked last year.

“What are we afraid of?” Zellner-Ehlers asked. “Why would we not mask these kids? I’m confused about that. We had a very successful year. Kids don’t fight the masks. We’ve got professionals out there who are telling us to mask up. So we mask up for three months or six months.”

Fogarty said there have been many cases recorded nationwide lately in which children younger than 12 years old are becoming quite sick. That differs from this time last year, and much of that comes from the more contagious and aggressive Delta variant.

Fogarty said children of any age who have another virus simultaneously with COVID-19 have had serious upper-respiratory illnesses. In Texas recently, she said, out of 45 cases, 25 of the children who tested positive for COVID-19 also had an additional virus or illness.

Fogarty said delays and longer quarantines will result if school district leaders intend to rely on the county health department for contract tracing, as some districts have indicated. County officials are unlikely to convey test results to district officials on weekends or holidays, for example, as they did last year.