After hearing opposing arguments on wearing masks from nearly 35 speakers Wednesday night, the Sparta School Board voted to reinstate board policy article 904, which states the wearing of masks is mandatory for staff and students.
Following the 4-2 vote in favor of a mask mandate, the large crowd erupted into chants of “Recall,” inside the Sparta High School Auditorium, where the meeting was moved from the cafeteria in order to accommodate the higher number in attendance.
A police presence was on hand to maintain order among the crowd, which was obviously outraged at the decision.
Prior to the vote, several attendees spoke both for and against having a mask requirement from concerned parents and grandparents to staff who work for the Sparta Area School District (SASD.)
Julie Ender, a faculty member at SHS and the Sparta Education Association Union President, made it very clear that she does not speak for everyone employed by the SASD.
Ender addressed the board saying, “You guys have a very difficult decision to make, and I just want you all to know that the Sparta Education Association will stand behind your decision and support you.”
Ryan Oswald had several questions for the board including, “Why are we here?” He questioned why the debate of mask versus no mask continues to resurface.
“This is ridiculous. We have people saying that we need to require masks for the safety of the children, but we’ve already tried that and what happened?” he said. “School was shut down. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome. Why are we doing this?”
On August 24, the board made the decision to make masks optional after several people addressed the board regarding the matter. Both at that time and Wednesday night, the majority of speakers favored optional masks and their comments elicited louder applause from other attendees as opposed to those in favor of a mask mandate.
Several attendees claimed there is no statistical data or proof that masks decrease the spread of COVID while others insisted the opposite is true.
Dr. Derrick Woodward, a family physician in Sparta, said he has treated approximately 150 patients with COVID-19 in the last year, many of whom recovered without significant complications, some suffer from long-haul COVID, and some passed away.
Dr. Woodward urged the board to reinstate the mandate, noting that hospitals in La Crosse are currently full and the Delta variant has made it more communicable.
“We need to do what we can right now to decrease the spread,” he said. “Numerous studies have shown that masks do prevent the spread of COVID despite what some earlier comments were. The best chance we have to keep our students in the classroom is to have everyone masked.”
Josh Nichols advocated for masks in school to be optional. “There have been zero peer review studies that show the efficiency in masking our youth,” he said. “Statistics provided by the Wisconsin CDC do not back up the need for masking.”
Several of the speakers, including Melissa Brooks, urged board members to stop following the Monroe County Health Department’s protocols for contact tracing and quarantining, noting that those rules have increased the number of students quarantined.
Brooks agreed that the community should do whatever it takes to keep kids in school.
“It takes our school board choosing to disconnect itself from the Monroe County Health Department’s close contact tracing and quarantine recommendations,” she said. “We don’t have 60 freshmen quarantined because of an outbreak of COVID. We have 60 freshmen quarantined because of the close contact tracing that Monroe County recommends. This means that healthy students are being quarantined regardless of their actual contact.”
The last speaker of the evening explained that citizens of Monroe County went before the county health committee to voice their opinions. “Stop all contact tracing. Stop threatening the school districts with legal action. Stop threatening to get the police involved with students not adhering to quarantine guidelines,” she said, adding that she felt the county health director is overstepping her authority by making threats.
She asked that the school board get back to the business of education instead of spending time and energy on COVID-related matters. “Stop trying to scare us. We are done with fear; what we want is freedom,” she said.
Board member James Rasmussen presented the letter sent to district families from the health department and said he found it “unethical” and “ridiculous.”
Rasmussen said the mask debate makes students pawns in a political debate and he urged that the school board abandon Monroe County guidelines and create its own regulations.
“Are we going to hide behind masks the rest of our lives or are we going to try to fight through this?” he asked.
The motion to reinstate the policy was made by Nancy Sikorsky. The motion was seconded by Colin Burns-Gilbert who said, “COVID is not going away anytime soon and knowing that we need to do what we have to do to ensure the safety of our students and our staff and the entire community.”
The motion passed with Sikorsky, Burns-Gilbert, Josh Lydon and Eric Solberg in favor and Rasmussen and Heidi Prestwood opposed; board member Ed Lukasek was absent.
The reinstated policy, which will be in effect “for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic and until the Board of Education deems it appropriate to remove this emergency policy,” mandates that all staff and students aged 5 or older are required to wear a face covering at school.
The policy also reads that students at the 4K level will be encouraged to wear face coverings to the extent practicable; face coverings include cloth or disposable face masks and/or neck gaiters, a face shield may be worn in addition to a mask, but it is not an acceptable substitute.
All face coverings must be school appropriate, applying the same decency standards as are applied to other clothing items such as T-shirts. Face coverings may be removed to eat or drink, and athletic teams and physical education classes will follow WIAA rules for face coverings.