Board says no to universal mask rule again

PW-S officials reject face-covering recommendation but shorten isolation period as Covid-19 surges in schools
By 
BILL SCHANEN IV
Ozaukee Press staff

With Covid-19 cases surging in schools and the district testing clinic out of rapid antigen tests, the Port Washington-Saukville School Board on Monday rejected for a second time this school year a recommendation from administrators that all students and staff members be required to wear masks.

The board did, however, reduce the required isolation and quarantine time from 10 to five days for students and staff members who have Covid-19, are symptomatic but not tested or have been exposed to members of their household to reflect recent changes in guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The board voted 6-2 in favor of a motion made by Doug Miller to accept the first part of the recommendation from administrators — to reduce isolation and quarantine periods — but reject the second part — to require universal mask-wearing in school buildings.

That leaves the district’s current mask policy in place, which encourages but does not require masks be worn until the infection rate at a particular school exceeds 3%. Then all students and staff members at that school must wear masks for 20 days and until the rate drops below 3%.

Three of the district’s five schools — Port Washington High School and Dunwiddie and Saukville elementary schools — quickly exceeded that threshold after students returned from the holiday break last week. Director of Special Services Duane Woelfel, who heads the district’s Covid-19 response team, said Thomas Jefferson Middle School is nearing that threshold and could easily reach it this week.

In addition to Miller, voting in favor of his motion were Brenda Fritsch, Danielle Mayer, Kelly O’Connell-Perket, Brian McCutcheon and Matthew Uselding. Voting against it were Yvonne Klotz and Sara McCutcheon. Brian Stevens was not at the meeting. 

The motion approved by the board allows students and staff members who must isolate to return to schools after five days if they are fever free for 24 hours without medication and if other symptoms have improved but requires them to wear masks for five days as recommended by the CDC. 

And that’s the “rub,” Woelfel said. 

Administrators endorsed the shorter isolation period to return students and staff members to school as quickly as possible, he said, but with no way to enforce the five-day mask mandate for those people, they recommended universal mask wearing. 

“We recommend the CDC guidance because it gets students back to school sooner and it gets teachers back to school sooner,” Woelfel told the School Board. “The rub is, we don’t have the ability to police masking (for five days). We just don’t have the ability to do that, so you need to know that we are recommending universal mask wearing.”

Miller admitted the five-day mask requirement is difficult to enforce but said returning students to school quickly is paramount.

“I know we’re saying masks are required for five days, but I don’t know how we are going to enforce that,” he said. “From what we’ve seen, we need to get kids back in classrooms, and we need to do it as soon as possible.”

Mayer said it’s the responsibility of parents to make sure their children wear masks in school if they are required to.

“You would hope people do the right thing and follow the recommendations,” she said. “Obviously, we can’t police this, so we have to hope for the best.”

Sara McCutcheon, however, suggested requiring all students and staff members to wear masks for 20 days to slow the spread of the virus and keep children in school, noting that most students in the district already have to wear masks because their schools exceed the 3% infection threshold. 

“Let’s try and stop this spread, which is increasing exponentially,” she said.

Uselding, who said he didn’t want to make fully vaccinated people wear masks, suggested the district continue with its current 10-day isolation and quarantine period and mask rules. 

“I’m comfortable with what we’re doing now,” he said. “I really don’t want to make mask-wearing universal and I really want to shorten the quarantine time, but I don’t want people to come back (to school) and infect others.”

Fritsch, who is the School Board president, endorsed the shorter isolation and quarantine period but not universal mask wearing.

“We can revisit this in a month if it (the infection rate) is not going down,” she said.

In September, with evidence Covid-19 was spreading quickly through school, administrators recommended universal mask wearing for the first quarter of the school year but the School Board did not entertain that suggestion.

The board’s vote on Monday came the same day the Wisconsin Department of Health Services sent a letter to school administrators in the state urging districts to implement mitigation measures in the face of “an unprecedented surge in Covid-19” fueled by the Omicron variant, including requiring everyone in schools to wear masks. 

The department also recommends that districts host school-based testing clinics, something the Port Washington-Saukville School District has done at the high school since late October.

Woelfel said Monday the district’s clinic, operated by Summit Clinical Labs, has been extraordinarily busy since students returned from the holiday break, and the district confirmed Wednesday that it had run out of rapid antigen tests because of a nationwide shortage.

The clinic, however, still has PCR tests, which instead of producing results in a matter of minutes like rapid antigen tests yields results in 24 to 48 hours, he said.

“The testing site continues to be very popular,” Woelfel said. “There were lines when students got back (from break). There was a more-than-two-hour wait.”

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