A violent storm is on the horizon.
Meteorologists are identifying it on radar, charting its wide path and telling viewers to be cautious to spare injuries and death.
Some cities in its trajectory are advising residents to move to shelter, now, before the winds pick up and the rains fall.
But others are hiring storm spotters, telling their citizens they can remain outside, suggesting they may want to seek protection indoors once the storm hits.
In this metaphor for the next COVID spike, guess which “city” is the Ripon Area School District?
Last Monday the district decided to start its school year by “strongly recommend[ing]” unvaccinated students be masked. That’s an odd distinction — vaccinated vs. unvaccinated — as scientists agree that vaccines don’t lower the viral load of Delta variant breakthrough cases, meaning that vaccinated people can still transmit COVID to others. University of Oxford scientists, the day after the Ripon School Board voted 6-3 against requiring masks for all students and staff, released results of a much heralded study showing that people who contract the Delta variant after being fully vaccinated carry a similar amount of viral load than those who catch the disease but aren’t immunized.
Ripon School Board members are sufficiently serious about the coming viral infection to hire two new “office nurse assistants” at an unspecified cost to taxpayers to work five hours a day five days a week to test students for COVID positivity should they show possible symptoms, even though many asymptomatic children with the virus are able to transmit COVID to teachers, aides and other youngsters.
This makes all the more perplexing the School Board’s decision to avoid, at least for now, implementing the most simple and effective mitigation measure: masking.
And so once their new office nurse assistants identify students or staff who test positive the district can again implement isolation measures, which could include quarantining, if an outbreak occurs; we all know how academically disruptive it is to yank whole classes of students from their desks for 10 days.
To give them greater notice of when their schools are at risk, district officials are relying on more accessible COVID testing and Fond du Lac County Public Health data, which now shows transmission status in the county is “high.”
But that’s sort of like saying, “We’ll check your clothes to see if they’re wet, and only after we discover that one of your shirts is drenched will we ask at least some of the rest of you to come in out of the rain.”
Too little, too late.
Mitigation measures the district implemented last school year to keep the pandemic at bay proved fairly effective at keeping cases low (“If past is prelude, RASD ready to reopen,” Aug. 5, 2021).
But unlike this year, they included a mandatory mask requirement for most of the school year.
With new viral variants affecting youngsters at higher rates and more seriously than ever, one would think the School Board, guided by Superintendent Mary Whitrock, would have tread the more safe, prudent path.
Instead, knowing that the COVID storm on the horizon hasn’t hit Ripon yet, Whitrock and the six board members chose instead to loosen their grip on previous measures to keep students and staff safe.
Incredibly, their decision was made despite being told by their health advisor and local pediatrician Dr. Jeanne Lyke that with the more aggressive Delta strain, children now are being hospitalized and given supplemental oxygen at greater rates than ever.
School Board President Nicole Dash characterized the district’s new plan as “pretty good” for staff, noting it is sympathetic to those who believe, “I’ve done everything that I should be doing as a responsible parent person whose going to be taking care of these children. I don’t feel like I need to wear a mask anymore.”
Every “responsible parent person,” particularly those working with students younger than sixth graders, is not doing everything she or he should if their uncovered face and nose risk emitting viral particles.
The mistake Dash and Whitrock made at last week’s meeting is that both focussed at times with the feelings of adults rather than the health of children in their care.
Whitrock even trotted out the wearisome personal liberty argument, noting “in so many areas of life, that’s what we ask people to do. So that they can make the choice that is best for them.”
Sorry. That bird don’t fly when one’s choice jeopardizes another’s well being.
Six of the nine School Board members turned their backs on advice from medical experts — the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, Centers for Disease Control, the Wisconsin Department of Health.
All of those professionals collectively agree a storm is coming and it’s now time to raise the umbrella.
The Ripon Area School District is going to wait for the dark clouds to be overhead and only then may reexamine its decision after students and staff start getting wet — and sick.
— Tim Lyke
Editor’s note: Tim Lyke is brother to Ripon School Board member Andy Lyke and is brother-in-law to district medical advisor Dr. Jeanne Lyke.