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)

The decision came just over a week after a 17-year-old high schooler in Mondovi died while COVID-positive.

The Mondovi School Board has voted to require face masks in district schools, one week after initially refusing to do so despite the death of a 17-year-old high school student in the Buffalo County community and requests from administrators that masks be worn.

Beginning Monday, students and staff must wear masks during the school day after board members voted 7-0 Thursday night to make them mandatory in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. Health officials say masks are among the most effective ways to slow COVID-19 transmission.  

Masks will be optional at after-school events, but students in close contact with others without masks will be subject to possible quarantines if they are deemed to have been exposed to COVID-19. Administrators closed school for two days just one week into this school year because of a COVID-19 outbreak, and new cases have continued to climb since.

“The school district of Mondovi is doing our very best to keep students in school while adding another layer of protection for them from this virus,” Mondovi Superintendent Jeff Rykal said of the mask requirement. “We are hopeful that the 7-0 board decision to mask students and adults during the school day, physical distancing, and routine disinfection practices will help curb the student and community spread that we are currently experiencing.”

The school board will review and monitor local COVID-19 data and plans to revisit the necessity of the mask requirement at each meeting, Rykal said.

Changing Course

The board’s support of a mask requirement marks a stark turnaround from one week ago, when at a Sept. 23 meeting board members refused to even vote on a mask requirement despite Rykal and school principals asking them to order that masks be worn. 

That decision came just one day after the death of Mondovi High School student Dylan Passa, who tested positive for COVID-19 and developed pneumonia and other health problems consistent with the virus. The previous week, board members voted to do away with its previous quarantine regulations designed to reduce virus spread.

Those actions, even as board members presumably knew about Passa’s hospitalization and then death, prompted criticism by some in the Buffalo County city of 2,600. Others told UpNorthNews they remain adamantly against wearing masks, which some see as a violation of their personal freedom. 

RELATED: A Mondovi High Schooler Died While COVID-Positive. The School Board Still Didn’t Require Masks.

Rykal pointed to a September survey of school district parents and staff as evidence a majority support wearing masks in school. Nearly two-thirds of parents said they back masks, according to survey results. About 85% of staff support them.  

The school board’s decision to lessen quarantine restrictions prompted concern from the Buffalo County Department of Health and Human Services. The department subsequently ordered the district to reinstate quarantine rules that conform with US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations, and district officials are complying with the order, Rykal said.

‘Heartbreaking Loss’

The board’s action comes as school districts across Wisconsin are taking different approaches to COVID-19 mitigation strategies. Most of the state’s largest school districts, such as Milwaukee, Madison, and Green Bay, require masks, while many in the state’s least-populous rural communities do not.

The issue has become controversial, leading to many contentious school board meetings at which police have been called to break up disputes. Some board members are resigning amid threats

Many other Wisconsin 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.

Passa joined 13-year-old Danny Rees of Fort Atkinson as the two students known to have died this school year after contracting the virus. As COVID-19 cases continue at high levels across Wisconsin, prompted by the especially contagious Delta variant, more school districts need to take actions to slow virus transmission, said Heather DuBois Bourenane, president of the Wisconsin Public Education Network.

“The heartbreaking loss of these two students in mask-optional districts at the height of a pandemic resurgence is a sobering reminder that we need to put our differences aside and agree to err on the side of precaution rather than regret,” she said. “Our students, and their loved ones, are counting on us to protect them.”