The Tomah School Board tabled action on a proposed mask mandate and 14-day mandatory quarantine when a student or employee is identified as a close contact or any direct physical contact within six feet of a confirmed or suspected COVID-19 case for a cumulative 15 minutes within a 24-hour period.
The decision to table until the board's Sept. 20 board meeting was made Monday night after nearly two hours of public comment in a near capacity THS gymnasium. That was followed by lengthy board discussion before they voted to allow themselves more time to review Covid information from the Monroe County Health Department and other pandemic resources.
A large group of Tomah parents simmered over the past weekend when Tomah district superintendent Dr. Mike Hanson posted a letter on the district website outlining the recommendation last Friday. In the letter Hanson discussed reasons for consideration of the mask mandate and the 14-day quarantine.
Some of the remarks during public comment questioned the short turnover of the information on the website and a possible quick decision coming at the Board Academy meeting Monday night. Board member Mike Gnewikow insisted there was no "underlying plan" with the timing. Merely that the possibility was discussed at the district's weekly Covid advisory meeting, meetings that are held weekly on Thursday, which coincided with Hanson's letter posted Sept. 3.
Hanson told the audience the decision for the recommendations is per Monroe County Health Department guidelines, which did not calm clearly agitated parents. Many cited suspicion of health guidelines at any level when it comes to mask guidelines and extended quarantines.
On Aug. 16 the Tomah School Board approved a return to a plan which included mask options in school buildings. At that time positive Covid tests in Monroe County seemed to be in a holding pattern.
On Sept. 3, Hanson posted, "Our goal this year is to stay in school adjusting risk mitigation practices at all operational levels based on local data to promote safe and healthy classrooms and work place environments. Current COVID 19 conditions in our district, community, and Monroe County indicate it is time to adjust our risk mitigation practices to achieve our goal."
The proposals are solely driven to help keep students in school for face-to-face instruction, Hanson noted.
But of nearly 25 people who signed up for public comment the majority adamantly opposed either proposal. Some based opposition due to mental health and educational challenges for students wearing masks. Some opposed because of the loss of choice for parents to make the decision regarding masks.
A sampling of public comment, but others who spoke in opposition shared a common theme.
Tiffany Bever told school board members she is the mother of three boys.
"They get dirty. They touch everything," Bever said. Don't mandate our lives. I'm not afraid. If you are afraid stay home."
Tim Malinger said, "You, the board represent us. We are a nation of laws, not mandates. It's simple, don't try to complicate it."
Jennifer Walworth cited a petition that has been circulating regarding opposition of the mandate. As of Monday night the petition had 1,100 signatures, according to Walworth.
Walworth asked Hanson and the board, "to make the right choice. We trust you to make the right decision."
Pam Buchda said Monday night, "whatever is decided tonight (now Sept. 20) some people will not be happy. But our mission is to keep staff and students safe."
Spencer Stephens made the motion to table a decision until Sept. 20.
"I've looked at data of (different groups). You get opposite opinions," Stephens said. "I'm not sure who is right. The data does not make sense to me. We got this information on Friday then had a meeting (Monday) tonight. I'm not comfortable making a decision. I think it's a little quick to make a decision."
Regarding the quarantine component, Rick Murray stressed the need for a quicker test to avoid lengthy quarantines for staff and students waiting to see if they are Covid positive after contact with someone who is Covid positive.
"Fourteen days is crazy," Murray said.
Gnewikow sees the issue from many angles. His wife teaches in the district. His brother is a principal in the district. Another brother is a principal in the La Crosse school district. Several of the people who addressed the board acknowledged they were in school with Gnewikow.
"We're facing two sides to this. I'm very torn over this," Gnewikow said. "But we have been meeting every Thursday (advisory committee). I've talked to several doctors who I trust their opinions. They say we need to wear masks."
Sue Bloom said, "We've talked about this over one year. The objective is to keep students in school."
But after public comment and witness to applause for speakers who opposed the mandate, Bloom said of the proposal, "I think now it was a knee-jerk reaction. For now I would like to see it stay (mask) optional."
Aaron Lueck added, "Everybody agrees in person education is best. But how do we stay there."
Proposal that will go before Tomah School Board on Sept. 20:
Mandatory face covering protocol for students 3K-12 and employees.
Universal face coverings will reduce the quarantine radius from 6 feet to 3 feet. The district is unable to meet the mandatory standards of the 7 day and 10 day shortened quarantine guidelines enforced by Monroe County Health.
Students 3K-12 will be required to wear face coverings during the academic day while indoors.
Masks will be required for all employees during the academic day while indoors.
Exceptions, when alone and working in own environment (six-foot bubble).
When lecturing and maintaining 6 feet of distance from students.
Visitors to buildings must wear face covering during the academic day. Face coverings required when riding a bus. Accommodations for this policy will be considered on an individualized basis for students, employees, and visitors who cannot wear a face covering due to disability or sincerely-held religious beliefs. Only individuals with disabilities will be considered for accommodations with respect to face coverings on the bus due to the federal orders.
Fourteen-day mandatory quarantine standard when student or employee is identified as a close contact or any direct physical contact (within six feet of a confirmed or suspected COVID-19 case for a cumulative 15 minutes within a 24-hour period)