Oconto Falls school mask mandate stays

Board says it has been hearing from both sides
A speaker addresses the Oconto Falls School Board in this screen shot from the YouTube feed of the board’s May 10 meeting. Members voted to continue the in-school mask mandate through the end of the school year but make masking optional starting with summer school sessions.
Warren Bluhm | NEW Media
Warren Bluhm

Faced with an emotional live and virtual audience, the Oconto Falls School Board voted May 10 to continue the district’s mask mandate through the last three weeks of the school year but to make face coverings optional during summer school and the upcoming 2021-22 academic year.

The vote was 6-1 after a lengthy discussion, with the newest board member, Brian Baumler, casting the only dissenting vote.

“We’ve allowed tackle football, wrestling and basketball. Those are close-contact situations,” Baumler said, who prefaced that by saying he believes in scholastic sports. “And that’s where children are sweating on each other. They’re perspiring, breathing heavily, and I understand that they’re masking during that, but I struggle to say that that is almost a greater risk than a child sitting freely in the classroom without a mask on.”

Sports turned out to have a major impact on the decision to stay the course, as both the North Eastern Conference (NEC) and the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA) require athletes to wear masks during competition, among other COVID-19 protocols.

The Luxemburg-Casco School District had voted to make masking optional last week but was meeting to reverse that decision at the same time as the Oconto Falls meeting, Superintendent Dean Hess said.

“All of the districts that are in the NEC reached out to Luxemburg-Casco within the last four days and let them know, because they took the decision that they did, they’re no longer in alignment with the NEC expectations that had been laid out earlier this year,” Hess said.

Reports indicate that L-C athletes were asking their school board to reinstate the mask policy so that they could be allowed to compete against other schools.

Board member Adam Adler said despite a fairly large turnout of people opposed to the mask requirement, he and other board members were getting just as many emails from people who wanted to keep the mandate in place.

As the meeting began, the board heard from 11 members of the public, with all but one pleading to lift the mandate for the sake of children’s mental and physical health. They spoke about children having trouble breathing or suffering migraine headaches and other ailments as a result of masking during more than six hours of school, day after day.

At least two parents said students were bullied by teachers threatening to give poorer grades to children who didn’t keep their noses and mouths covered by a mask.

“I’ve seen students who are afraid to take a mask off for a bloody nose and a panic attack because they don’t want to get in trouble,” Jackie Wolford said.

But the final public speaker was teacher Sherri Woelffer, who argued that classroom plans are often redesigned to protect the health of students with peanut allergies or mobility issues, for example.

“Masking at school is no different from the scenarios I just described,” Woelffer said. “We accommodate for the benefit of those who are immuno-compromised.”