PRESS EDITORIAL: Covid shines a harsh light on school boards

There was a time when local school board members might have identified with the Maytag repairman, that famous character from a TV commercial who was fated to put time into his job in boring obscurity because his company’s product was so dependable he had nothing to do.

School board members have always had something to do, but it was often done in front of empty meeting-room chairs as they passed the hours dissecting the pros and cons of arcane subjects in which the public had little interest.

The Maytag repairman is gone, and so are the days when the public ignored the elected representatives who govern their school districts. School boards have become the focus of newly energized citizen engagement, often intense, sometimes demanding, even hostile.

Much of the new pressure on school boards derives from pandemic stress. Dozens of parents showed up at last week’s meeting of the Port Washington-Saukville School Board to weigh in on the Covid-19 safety plan recommended by school administrators.

Most of the parents found the plan’s standards for masking and quarantining too restrictive. Parents spoke, forcefully in some cases, board members listened, responded, discussed the issues and settled on a compromise that eased the safety plan thresholds for mask-wearing and quarantine but left those measures in place.

Some members of the public, the School Board and the administration might not have been pleased with the outcome, but the meeting was a refreshing example of how representative government is supposed to work.

Other school districts have not fared as well. The Mequon-Thiensville School District is in the throes of a School Board recall campaign that has the ugly trappings of a polarizing political brawl, including the intrusion of outside political interest groups.

The grounds cited by organizers of the recall of four members of the Mequon-Thiensville School Board are a mixed bag of grievances, including displeasure over pandemic rules that last year required mask wearing and social distancing by students and staff.

School boards across the country have been challenged by parents disputing their decisions on Covid protocols, some favoring more stringent measures to prevent widespread infection, others arguing against coronavirus countermeasures, especially mask rules. Some of these confrontations have been resolved with a respectful give and take as seen at the Port-Saukville board meeting; others have degenerated into anger-fueled shouting matches and threatening behavior.

The problem with the evident obsession over school Covid restrictions, even when it results in good examples of increased public interest in school affairs, is that it threatens to obscure what must be the goal of school health policies: To keep schools open so that all students get the in-person, in-classroom education they desperately need after enduring the disruptions of shuttered school buildings and remote-education experiments.

What happened to the children who were deprived by the pandemic of the education society owes them has been accurately described as a learning catastrophe. The best students were set back in acquiring the knowledge they will need for college and careers. Many students who were struggling before schools closed have been pushed to the brink of grade-level failure.

In that context, it is hard to understand how mask rules can be the focus of so much dissension.

At the Port-Saukville board meeting, the objections voiced by mask opponents included some flagrant misinformation asserting that masks are useless or even dangerous to wear and the astonishing comment by one parent that the “virus simply doesn’t affect children in any significant way.” Parents of children who have become dangerously sick with the Delta Covid variant and, in a number of cases, hospitalized would disagree.

Data disprove the mask skeptics. Dr. Kanecia Zimmerman, associate professor of pediatrics at Duke University School of Medicine, and Dr. Danny Benjamin Jr., a pediatric disease specialist Duke Health, conducted a widely cited study of schools in North Carolina, which had a statewide mask mandate for all public schools, and three other states, including Wisconsin. Their findings led them to conclude unequivocally that masking is second only to vaccination in preventing the spread of Covid.

Masks are not pleasant for students to wear. Some of their parents find masks objectionable because they don’t want to be told how to conduct their personal lives. Some find them contrary to their political beliefs.

But, really, isn’t it worth putting up with those small irritations to lessen the chances that infections among students and teachers will force quarantines and even school closures?

Remember, the goal is not winning the mask argument. It is keeping schools open.

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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
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