Students and staff at Mondovi Middle & High School will have to wear masks starting Monday, Oct. 4. The Mondovi school board voted unanimously to require masks last week following the death of a student who had tested positive for COVID-19.  (Photo via Mondovi School District)
Students and staff at Mondovi Middle & High School will have to wear masks starting Monday, Oct. 4. The Mondovi school board voted unanimously to require masks last week following the death of a student who had tested positive for COVID-19. (Photo via Mondovi School District)

Dylan Passa is the second school-age Wisconsinite to die after testing positive for COVID-19 since the school year began.

A 17-year-old Mondovi High School student has died after testing positive for COVID-19, becoming at least the second Wisconsin student to perish after contracting the virus since this school year began four weeks ago. 

Dylan Passa died Wednesday afternoon at Children’s Minnesota Hospital in Minneapolis, where he was transferred on Sept. 19, according to a GoFundMe post by Samantha Penry, who is organizing a fundraiser to help Passa’s family raise money related to his medical expenses. So far more than $13,000 has been raised. 

A day after Passa’s death, the school board decided not to take a vote on whether to require masks. 

Passa, a high school senior, was admitted to an Eau Claire hospital with pneumonia on Sept. 14, one day before the Mondovi School Board voted unanimously to do away with district rules requiring that students exposed to those testing positive for COVID-19 be quarantined, and eight days before he died.  

The death comes as more young people contract COVID-19, especially in schools, and as many school boards refuse to implement additional safety mitigations despite the growing threat posed by the virus and its highly contagious Delta variant.

According to Penry’s post and other sources familiar with Passa’s situation, he was admitted to an intensive care unit on Sept. 15 as his respiratory condition worsened, and he required a ventilator to breathe. Then, on Sept. 18, he developed blood clots in his legs, and his health took another downturn as he also experienced inflammation of his heart and collapsed lungs. 

The following day, the post states, Passa was intubated and was airlifted to Minneapolis to receive specialized treatment. Despite those efforts, he died Wednesday.

“Unfortunately, Dylan’s brain had too much damage during the multiple [cardiac and respiratory] procedures on Tuesday and he passed away Wednesday afternoon with his  family by his side,” Penry’s post states. 

Mondovi Superintendent Jeff Rykal sent a letter to district parents Thursday notifying them of Passa’s death.

“This is a truly devastating time for our entire community,” Rykal said, noting the district is offering counseling to students. “We ask that you join us in keeping the student’s family and friends in your thoughts at this time.”

Passa joins Danny Rees, a 13-year-old student in the Fort Atkinson School District, who died on Sept. 14, as Wisconsin school-age students known to have died this school year after testing positive for COVID-19. The official cause of their deaths has not been officially determined.   

Rees’ mother Tammy created a GoFundMe account in which she outlined her son’s medical condition. 

“He had been congested for two days with what seemed like a cold,” she said of her son. “While resting at home, he stopped breathing. We are besides ourself with loss.”

Board’s Action Debated

Last week, in the wake of Rees’ death, the Fort Atkinson School Board voted to require masks in school, reversing its earlier decision to leave that choice up to parents, students, and staff. 

The Mondovi School Board took a different approach. One day after Passa’s death, on Thursday night, the board members decided not to vote on requiring masks at school even though Rykal and other district administrators recommended that action happen. Health officials say masks are a main way of slowing COVID-19 transmission.

Board members also did not take action on an order by the Buffalo County Health Department that the district reinstate quarantining students exposed to COVID-19, deciding they didn’t need to because the order was already in effect, Rykal said. 

The health department issued that order following the board’s Sept. 15 vote to relax quarantine rules, saying doing so did not conform with health officials’ recommendations regarding reducing virus spread. In the last eight days, 15 Mondovi students have tested positive for COVID-19, and another 87 have been quarantined in the district of about 960 kids. 

RELATED: Most Wisconsin School Districts Aren’t Requiring Masks. There Are Already Outbreaks.

“I’m hopeful that we can get through this current [COVID-19] spike,” Rykal told UpNorthNews Friday, noting the district is implementing practices to reduce virus transmission in school. “No. 1 for me is to try to keep kids in school and keep them safe.” 

The Mondovi School Board’s decision to do away with its previous quarantine regulations even as board members presumably knew about Passa’s hospitalization after testing positive for COVID-19 has prompted criticism by some in this community of 2,600 in Buffalo County. Others remain adamantly opposed to masks and say a mask order would violate people’s personal freedoms.  

Erica Zerr, a school board member in the Eau Claire Area School District, knows firsthand the pressures school board members face amid the coronavirus pandemic. She said the Mondovi School Board’s decision to essentially eliminate quarantine guidelines after Passa was hospitalized related to COVID-19 flies in the face of reason. 

“As a school board member, our No. 1 responsibility is the health and safety of the students we are trusted with every day,” Zerr said. “We can’t make sure they will be around to do all of the great things they will do in this world if they are sick and dying.”

Losing any student is tragic, said Heather DuBois Bourenane, president of the Wisconsin Public Education Network. She urged school boards and district administrators to take actions to protect students from COVID-19.

“We may never know if a COVID-related death was ‘preventable’ in our districts,” she said. “But we do know with crystal clarity whether or not we are doing all we can to prevent them. Districts know exactly what that means: it means masking, vaccinating everyone we can, and quarantining as recommended by local health experts when students do get sick.”

Children’s COVID-19 Cases Rising

Federal, state, and county health officials recommend that students and staff wear masks in schools to reduce the spread of COVID-19. While many of Wisconsin’s largest school districts, such as Milwaukee and Madison, are requiring face masks in classrooms, many others, especially in the state’s rural areas, are not.

In some cases, school districts have done away with mandatory quarantining of students and are allowing parents to decide whether to send their children who have been exposed to COVID-19 to school. Those actions come despite the fact the number of new virus cases has climbed significantly in recent weeks, prompted by the especially contagious Delta variant. 

Many school districts throughout the state are reporting high numbers of students and staff testing positive for COVID-19 and far higher numbers are having to quarantine after being exposed to the virus. Just one week into this school year, quarantine numbers were so high in the Mondovi district that district officials halted in-person instruction for two days.

Health officials are concerned as more children are contracting COVID-19 with the start of a new school year and in-person instruction. During a press conference Wednesday, state Department of Health Services (DHS) Secretary Karen Timberlake reiterated the importance of masks as a means of slowing virus spread and said outbreaks in schools often lead to greater community transmission. 

“When kids get sick from COVID-19, they can spread it to others like family members, friends, and relatives who may not be vaccinated,” Timberlake said.  

Fifty-three percent of Wisconsin residents are vaccinated against COVID-19, according to DHS figures. Children under age 12 are not yet eligible for the vaccine, but Pfizer officials said Monday trials show that the vaccine is effective in preventing the virus in children ages 5 to 11 and that it will seek authorization in the US soon to begin vaccinations for youngsters. 

Fewer than half of middle- and high school-age children in Wisconsin are vaccinated against COVID-19, and the number of kids hospitalized with the virus is rising. DHS data shows 4,686 children under age 18 tested positive for the virus last week, more than double any other age group during that time. That figure has risen each week since early August. 

As contentious debate about whether masks should be required in schools continues, DuBois Bourenane said she worries a lack of COVID-19 mitigation strategies could mean additional student illnesses and deaths. 

“We can debate policy. We can change policy. We can debate the changes to the policies,” she said. “But the one thing we can’t change is getting back a student we have lost.”