As school boards—many times influenced by groups funded by national conservative organizations—decline to enact COVID safety protocols, local parent groups are pushing back.
As parents and others in Wausau watched the number of new COVID-19 cases rise and infection outbreaks occur as classes began in school this fall, they grew increasingly concerned.
They made requests to school board members and Wausau School District Superintendent Keith Hilts that the district require that face masks be worn by students and staff, and that other COVID-19 mitigation policies such as social distancing and contact tracing, be followed. They found little success.
District officials have implemented strategies—such as air filters, frequent cleaning intended to slow virus spread, and trying to maintain social distancing—to reduce virus spread. But the school board has not required that masks be required, despite school mask policies being supported by two-thirds of Americans (although masks must be worn in certain situations when positive COVID-19 infections occur or when positive cases reach a certain level).
Rather than give up advocating for the issue and admit defeat to a very vocal minority of parents, Wausau community members decided to take action. On Wednesday a group of parents and community members in Wausau called Keeping Wausau Kids Safe & Parents Informed announced they had paid for a billboard along a city street that states “Hey Wausau School Board … Aren’t Schools Supposed to Teach Science?”
The group is one of several grassroots efforts throughout Wisconsin that have formed to counter the loud opposition conservative organizations, right-wing school board members, and some other parents have voiced against COVID safety.
In a press release, the Wausau group’s members criticized Hilts and school board members for what they say is a lack of willingness to listen to their concerns. Not requiring masks in schools goes against continued health officials’ recommendations to do so, they said, and places community members at risk, especially as children under age 12 cannot yet be vaccinated against COVID-19.
“The Wausau School Board and district administration continue to play politics with our children’s health and safety. Zero is the acceptable level of preventable deaths in a public health emergency,” the group said in a statement. “We won’t stop advocating for protections for our children.”
In addition to the billboard, the group said it has collected signatures from more than 1,000 people supporting a mask requirement. Group members also are placing two weekly ads in a local publication and will soon place signs in yards advocating for masks in schools.
“The harm is already happening here by doing nothing,” group leader Mary Hoefs said.
Hilts could not immediately be reached for comment.
Groups Form Throughout State
Such instances of groups pushing for face masks and other COVID-19 safeguards in schools are becoming increasingly common across the state, education advocates say. As a statewide surge of COVID-19 cases spurred by the especially dangerous Delta variant continues, and as many schools continue to experience significant outbreaks, parents and others are taking action to convince school boards and administrators to adopt practices, including mandatory face masks, proven to limit virus transmission.
For example, in the Mequon-Thiensville School District, where four school board members face recall after supporting COVID-19 mitigation, a group has formed to back those members. Similarly, an online petition was launched in the Kenosha Unified School District to show support for restoring about $3 million in funding cut from the district budget at its annual meeting that was taken over by a local chapter of a national conservative anti-COVID safety group. Kenosha School Board members said they have faced scrutiny for supporting COVID-19 protections, including masks, and organizers of the petition said they support those protections.
In St. Croix County, parents of students in the Baldwin-Woodville and Osceola school districts told UpNorthNews they are frustrated at the lack of COVID-19 safeguards they say endangers their students. Parents in the Baldwin-Woodville School District filed a complaint with federal officials about that district’s COVID-19 policies and are circulating a petition urging for their adoption. So far, the school board has still not required masks.
During September, 482 of the 774 new COVID-19 cases in St. Croix County were among people 19 and younger, with 331 of those cases in residents ages 10 to 19.
“I am deeply concerned that as COVID is targeting our school-aged groups, the strategies to keep kids safe that were in place during the last year, such as masks, physical distancing, and cohorts, are minimally used this school year,” St. Croix County Public Health Administrator Kelli Engen said.
Peggy Wirtz-Olsen, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), the state’s largest teachers union, said more parents and community groups are taking action to implement COVID-19 protections in schools. WEAC has been “really clear” about advocating for masking, social distancing, and other COVID-19 protections in schools, she said.
“We’re seeing more and more parents and community groups support our efforts to go against those smaller groups who are against [COVID-19 protections],” Wirtz-Olsen said. “Parents and other community members are realizing they need to lift their voices along with us to do what is in the best interest of all students.”
As the school year neared and school districts considered measures to reduce COVID-19 transmission, parents and others against those measures showed up at school board meetings in protest. In some cases outbursts have happened, prompting police to be called and remove people acting out. Many of those efforts have been backed by national conservative organizations that oppose masks and other efforts to slow virus spread.
While those efforts exerted pressure on school officials to keep from adopting mask requirements in many districts, other schools have reversed their previous stances against masks. One district to do so is Mondovi in Buffalo County, where the board voted recently to require masks after a 17-year-old student died after testing positive for the virus. The same happened in the Fort Atkinson district after a 13-year-old boy died there.
Parents like Thomas Pearson are pushing back against the prevention of COVID-19 mitigation in schools in the form of legal action. He and his wife filed a claim on Oct. 1 against the Menomonie School District, where their 6-year-old daughter with Down syndrome attends school, for its failure to protect her against the virus. That action, the first of its kind in Wisconsin, was followed by a class action federal lawsuit filed Wednesday against the Waukesha School District for its lack of face masks and other protective measures against COVID-19.
Those legal actions are a further sign of parents’ growing frustration with a lack of COVID-19 protections, Wirtz-Olsen said. Students would be better protected against the virus, she said, if educators had been more involved in discussions to devise COVID-19 standards in schools, and if the state Legislature would enact rules for all schools to abide by.
“Students need stability in their schools, and in many cases we haven’t been seeing that,” she said. “Keeping students safe means following the science.”