Derrick Van Orden also hosts “Make Masks Optional” meeting, flouting health guidance.
A western Wisconsin school district dropped a requirement that students and staff wear masks in school to prevent the spread of COVID-19 after hearing from a congressional candidate who lives in Hager City, 65 miles away.
Republican Derrick Van Orden narrowly lost the Third District race against US Rep. Ron Kind in November and has already announced he is a candidate for the seat in 2022.
Van Orden appeared before the Elk Mound school board at its April 26 meeting, during which he urged the board to make wearing masks in school optional, attendees of that meeting said.
After hearing from Van Orden and other speakers, the board voted 5-2 to drop the mask requirement previously in place this school year. The optional mask measure took effect May 3. Face coverings will still be required on district buses and the district will follow COVID-19 guidelines for student athletes.
Van Orden, a retired Navy SEAL, lost to Kind, a La Crosse Democrat by a tight 51% to 49% margin. Van Orden was seen after the election during a trip to Washington, DC on January 6. He said he traveled there to hear from then-President Donald Trump and did not take part in any of the activity that led to an assault on the US Capitol aimed at stopping the certification of Joe Biden as winner of the presidential election.
Van Orden has opposed mandatory mask requirements and other protections endorsed by Gov. Tony Evers and public health officials intended to limit the spread of COVID-19. Since surfacing last year, the virus has infected more than 600,000 in Wisconsin and has killed 6,877, according to state Department of Health Services (DHS) figures.
Van Orden has made numerous anti-mask comments during media interviews and on his Twitter account. He referenced the Elk Mound vote in an April 29 tweet, saying, “We received a ton of interest and requests for information concerning the school board meeting in Elk Mound where the board voted to make Masks Optional. We are putting together an in-person meeting with a Zoom link to hear from the people that got this going.”
In a May 3 tweet showing a maskless Van Orden and others gathered in a room, he states: “Wow! We had over 50 people on site and another 50+ for our ‘Make Masks Optional’ Meeting tonight.”
Sources familiar with the situation told UpNorthNews a survey of district staff showed more than 70% favored retaining the mask regulation. However, school board members didn’t seem to take that into account, they said, and did not solicit input from district administrators.
The district has maintained face-to-face instruction throughout the school year, except for one two-week period at the elementary school, in large part because of mandatory mask wearing, sources said.
Van Orden’s repeated recommendations against wearing masks in schools and other indoor locations goes against guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which says the best way to break the chain of transmission is to be able to quickly identify and quarantine those who were close to a person newly-infected with the coronavirus. He was not available for comment for this story.
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Elk Mound is among a growing number of Wisconsin school districts relaxing practices intended to reduce the spread of COVID-19. The Waukesha school board voted 5-4 Tuesday to no longer require students in that school district to be quarantined if they come into close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 or has symptoms related to the virus, despite the fact about 20 district students are currently infected with the virus and another 130 are quarantining because of close contacts.
Outbreaks are occurring even in schools where strict safety measures are in place. Milwaukee Public Schools currently has 55 classrooms quarantined and has closed seven schools due to COVID-19 cases, according to local news reports.
A surge of COVID-19 cases is also happening in La Crosse County schools, driven in part by infractions occurring at extracurricular events as people fail to follow masking and social distancing guidelines, public health officials said.
The La Crosse County Health Department reported 82 positive cases at schools during the past two-and-a-half weeks. An additional 695 students have been quarantined because of close contact with someone who has been exposed to COVID-19.