The vote comes after the school board voted twice last month against requiring masks amid a nationwide surge of the Delta COVID-19 variant.
Parents in the Menomonie Area School District—not district officials—will now decide whether students whose peers have tested positive for COVID-19 should be allowed to go to school without quarantining.
The Menomonie School Board voted 5-3 Monday to do away with a mandatory quarantine period for students deemed to have been in close proximity to others who have contracted the virus. Students still must quarantine if there has been an exposure in their household, however.
The board’s decision was prompted by concerns about too many students missing class time because of COVID-19 exposure. On Tuesday, 297 of the district’s 3,300 students missed class because of COVID-19, a figure that totaled 257 Wednesday.
Less than three weeks into a new school year, other school districts across Wisconsin are reporting significant outbreaks of the virus. Many of the state’s largest school districts, such as Milwaukee, Madison, and Green Bay, are requiring that masks be worn in school.
However, the vast majority of districts in the state’s rural areas, including Menomonie, do not require them, a move that goes against the advice of medical experts and follows opposition to COVID-19 mitigation measures from Republican lawmakers, conservative school board members, and some parents.
Menomonie School Board members said data shows low COVID-19 infection rates for in-class transmission of the virus. But District Administrator Joe Zydowsky said he worries the new policy could lead to more infections and more students missing school.
“I understand the board’s thinking behind [their decision],” Zydowsky said. “However, we’re still trying to figure out how the Delta variant is going to impact our schools. So, yeah, I am concerned.”
Zydowsky said he backs a face mask requirement in school to reduce COVID-19 spread. The school board voted twice last month against requiring masks.
“We could address this concern with universal masking, but that is not the direction the board wants to go,” he said.
Dunn County Health Officer KT Gallagher said she is not familiar with the resolution the board approved, but she is concerned if the number of students considered to be close contacts is being reduced, as sending them to school without a quarantine period could lead to further virus spread.
“If we can keep kids in school safely, that is the best option,” Gallagher said. “But a change in identification of who they are considering close contacts, that could be a problem.”
Peggy Wirtz-Olsen, who recently was named president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), expressed concern about the reduced quarantine policy. She said school district leaders must make children’s safety a priority to ensure in-person instruction can continue and to avoid a return to virtual learning, which many students struggled with last school year.
WEAC recently said COVID-19 vaccination should be required of all school educators and staff, and face masks should be mandatory in all schools. The CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, the state Department of Public Instruction, and other public health agencies support face masks in schools and COVID-19 vaccinations.
“Our position on this is really clear. We believe in following the recommendations of the medical professions and with input from our educators,” Wirtz-Olsen said. “This is what we need to do to keep in-person learning happening. Wear a mask and get vaccinated.
As COVID-19 cases have increased, more school boards are reversing previous positions against requiring masks and are now mandating them, Wirtz-Olsen said.
“That is what we are seeing, more schools requiring face masks,” she said. “That is an encouraging trend.”
However, many parents remain adamantly opposed to mask requirements. Debate about the wearing of masks in schools has served as a contentious flashpoint at many school board meetings about the topic in recent weeks, with police being called in some cases after tempers have flared.
In the Kenosha Unified School District, parents, teachers, and district officials gathered Tuesday to urge parents to send their children to school this Friday after some district parents opposed to a district mask requirement have threatened to not send their kids to school that day, a move that could hurt the district financially.
The third Friday in September is when Wisconsin schools count students to figure enrollment, which is then used to determine the amount of per-pupil funding and revenue limits.
Heather DuBois Bourenane, executive director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network, said school board members face significant public scrutiny, and in some cases, threats, because of public divisiveness surrounding COVID-19, masks, and vaccinations.
“School boards are really torn right now,” she said. “There is no decision that can be made about this that won’t make someone mad.”
Despite tension surrounding COVID-19 mitigation strategies in schools, DuBois Bourenane urged school boards to follow the advice of medical and health professions and make student safety a priority. Doing otherwise, especially with the Delta variant surge “is reckless,” she said.
Dealing with COVID-19 and tensions surrounding it in schools is challenging, Zydowsky said. If there is a bright spot amid those often difficult discussions, he said, it is the fact that people care about what happens in schools.
He said he hopes Wednesday’s drop in COVID-19-related absences continues but he acknowledged that may not happen with a relaxed quarantine policy and little virus mitigation happening in the surrounding community. In Dunn County, where Menomonie is located, 41.9% of residents have received both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine; statewide, that figure is 52.5%.
“Right now we’re just trying to get through this,” Zydowsky said.