School Boards Mandate Masks for Most

Sturgeon Bay board: When can the mask mandate end?

Masks and orders to wear them aren’t becoming any less controversial in Door County.

Backlash from parents and words of support from hospital officials came Monday night as a result of the Southern Door School District’s orders, issued that morning, that all students aged 4 through sixth grade wear facial coverings inside school buildings.

Last week, when the Sevastopol School Board issued an order requiring facial coverings for students in prekindergarten through sixth grade, more than half a dozen parents spoke out against the requirement for their children. Some listed potential physiological, complexion and psychological side effects. Others said the district was overreaching by making choices that parents and students should make.

Southern Door was last among the Door County public school districts to require all school employees and at least the younger children, who cannot yet receive COVID-19 vaccinations, to wear facial coverings. 

“Ultimately, we’re implementing this because we want to keep kids in school,” said Southern Door Superintendent Christopher Peterson. 

Gibraltar and Washington Island schools decided in August to require masks. After a five-hour meeting, Sturgeon Bay’s school board voted Sept. 16 to implement a district-wide mask mandate that began Monday. 

The masking orders have come at the urging of Department of Public Health and Door County Medical Center (DCMC) professionals, who have said that if everyone in a room is wearing a mask, fewer students would need to be quarantined if they came into relatively close contact with a student who tested positive.

Last week, Peterson said Southern Door had 45 students who had been sent home. By Monday, four nights later, Southern Door had recorded 16 positive cases and had placed 88 students into quarantine, said Amy Fogarty, pediatric health adviser for Door County schools.

Fogarty and DCMC Chief Executive Officer Brian Stephens applauded Peterson for implementing the masking rules. Fogarty told the mostly anti-mask crowd that she didn’t like wearing masks either, but she hoped the district’s mitigating strategy would help to reduce the number of cases in the district and the number of healthy kids in quarantine.

Parental Backlash to Mask Orders

The audience had no applause for hospital officials, but plenty for parents who listed reasons for opposing mask rules. Several of those parents spoke, saying they believed that masks were not efficient in stopping the spread of COVID-19, that the psychological and physiological side effects of facial coverings outweighed the benefits of masks, and that the decision should be one that parents make, not school districts.

“I’m here to tell you it is my right as a parent to make decisions on the health and welfare of my children,” said Jennifer Carpenter, a parent of three, who argued that a district mandate is “simply guidance. You cannot choose to forgo our rights for guidance.”

Carpenter read a legal description of how school officials could be subject to civil lawsuits and fines if they required masks for students who need special accommodations.  

Parent Adam Koskubar, who has four children in the district, said one of his children told him that teachers were telling students to get vaccinations.

“An adult teacher is here to teach, not to try to persuade my child or anybody’s child to get a shot,” Koskubar said. 

He also said his four children were in quarantine last year for a cumulative total of almost 200 days, yet the district required masks. Fogarty said the definition of “close contact” had been changed from six feet of separation to three feet, so that should reduce the number of children in quarantine. Peterson said Sevastopol has had students of all ages placed into quarantine, and the goal of requiring masks is to keep as many students in school as possible.

When Does It End?

Last week, when the Sturgeon Bay School Board voted 5-4 to require universal masking within school buildings, the board also instructed Superintendent Dan Tjernagel and local health officials to provide, by Oct. 21, statistical guidelines to help the board decide when it can ease or lift its mask mandate. Tjernagel said the situation was extremely frustrating because the district has had only three students test positive for COVID-19 as of Sept. 17.

“The board realizes that people don’t want to see this change put into place indefinitely,” Tjernagel said. 

The Sturgeon Bay School Board also put a condition in place that would require it to hold a special meeting within 10 business days of Door County moving to the medium or low COVID-19 case-activity level, as issued by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, to evaluate possible changes to, or the elimination of, the facial covering requirement.

Sevastopol’s Sept. 17 move to require facial coverings for students through sixth grade also requires all employees, teachers and visitors to wear masks while inside the school buildings. Masks remain optional for students in seventh through 12th grades, and teachers may remove masks while instructing students if the teacher is more than six feet away from students. Students also may take off masks during physical-education classes in the gym at Sevastopol if social distancing is possible during the activity.

As of Sept. 17, all the Sevastopol students who tested positive for COVID-19 were sixth-graders or younger. At that point, the district had eight positive cases, but that resulted in 32 students being placed in quarantine.

Neither the Gibraltar nor Washington Island school districts have had a COVID-19 case, according to Sue Powers, Door County public health officer/manager. Both districts have had a universal masking requirement since classes began.