The Ripon Area School Board voted to continue to mandate the wearing of masks for 4K to fifth grade if/when the governor’s order expires Monday, Sept. 28 for at least another month.

That was the decision that came Monday after an at times heated discussion about the effectiveness of masks, accuracy of COVID-19 reported deaths and rise of cases.

The motion passed 7-1, with John Sperger being the only one to vote against it. Nicole Dash was unable to attend. The topic will be revisited again at next month’s meeting.

Students in grades 6 to 12 also will need to continue to wear masks based on a decision that the School Board made as the administration was developing its return to school plan in July.

School Board member David Scott was in favor of continuing the mask mandate for 4K to fifth graders, noting it wouldn’t make sense to do otherwise with the number of cases in the community and state.

“We’ve gotten through 30 days with masks, but we’re in a worse situation and we’re thinking about taking away masks; that would be silly from my point of view,” he said, noting Wisconsin ranks second in the country right now to South Dakota in daily cases per 100,000 people and is fourth in the country in daily cases behind California, Texas and Florida. “… I would need a lot of evidence from schools our size, with our surrounding areas that they can survive this without masks. I just think to even think about removing masks right now from my point-of-view is silly. It’s the most effective tool when you look around the world … and we need to bring down numbers because right now they’re shooting through the roof.”

Sperger responded that he would “agree to disagree” as he noted it’s been six months and the curve was supposed to have flattened, but instead it has gone up under the mask mandate.

“I don’t understand how wearing a mask is helping anything at this point,” he said.

School Board member Andy Lyke asked Sperger if people are all wearing masks and answered his own question by saying “That’s our problem; we don’t have discipline to wear them.”

Sperger later stated that “If I did my job the way they report COVID deaths and COVID numbers, I would be fired, because the way they report their numbers is not accurate … I’m not saying that there is not a COVID virus; I’m just saying that the numbers are overinflated.”

Scott disagreed with his point to some extent, noting the numbers might end up higher.

“There’s a very high likelihood that we under-counted all the deaths because they’re are so many people who have not been tested that have died and it’s very likely that a high proportion of them over the last six months have been COVID deaths,” he said.

Sperger wasn’t the only person to speak against the mask mandate at the meeting as Ripon High School senior Dan Zimmerman spoke in opposition during the public comments session.

He talked as a representative of the local student/parent group Road to De-mask Us, which is focused on getting “schools and lives back to normal while no longer living in fear.”

Zimmerman noted the group aims to “hold the school district to its mission statement that includes the words, ‘engaging community’” and it believes “that this means talking with us, not talking at us. Unfortunately, regarding COVID, we’ve had a significant amount of talking at us and very little talking with us. And tonight, you plan to vote on extending mandatory masks for 4K to fifth grade, without bothering to talk with us. But surely later this week, you’ll talk at us, telling us what you’ve decided.”

He added that he and his dad, Dan Zimmerman Sr., had a “great conversation” with Superintendent Mary Whitrock and School Board President Gary Rodman two weeks ago and “they agreed that getting schools back to normal swiftly and safely was a priority.”

The younger Zimmerman also noted the administrators “agreed that the best decisions are informed by facts and data, not emotion, opinion, supposition and groupthink” and questioned whether any “facts or data are informing tonight’s decision” after looking at the agenda.

“Our group supports sensible skepticism; sensible skepticism means thinking hard about the information we have at hand, not just blindly accepting it,” he said. “It means actively improving knowledge by seeking updated and possibly contradictory information from a variety of sources. It means challenging our biases and preconceived conclusions before deciding. Our group believes in true science, not political science. Blindly following the government’s politicized recommendations is dangerous in today’s election year climate. We owe it to our district’s students to get educated and not simply follow the crowd. Our teachers challenged us to think critically and examine all available information before making decisions. We politely ask you to do the same.”

Zimmerman continued by stating that the Fond du Lac Public Health Department recommends school districts make local decisions based on local data and questioned what the data is.

“We understand that there are schools in the area with less restrictive mask policies,” he said. “What is their data on COVID infection? Surely that data exists as those schools dare deviate from the orthodoxy. Have we not heard about their data because it doesn’t fit the panic narrative? Possibly, but has anyone here asked the question? Has there been any public discussion about medical exemptions for mask wearing. Many of my classmates and I get [sick] by days end from wearing masks. We wonder how the little kids feel. How about how input from teachers and how mask wearing has degraded their ability to educate? Are teachers given any common sense classroom flexibility regarding masks? When does all this end? At what point has the district cut its own nose to spite its face. We argue that the district is noseless.”

District provides info, answers questions

The School Board’s 7-1 vote to continue to mandate the wearing of masks for 4K to fifth grade came after more than an hour of discussion between Whitrock, doctors and the School Board.

Whitrock started off her legislative/COVID updates by noting it is the recommendation of the administration team to extend the requirement for the younger children to wear masks, especially with the recent spike in positive COVID cases in the Ripon community and Fond du Lac County.

“It has actually been going very well at the elementary level; that was something that we wondered if we brought students back to see if they would be touching the masks all the time or wearing them and taking them on and off,” Whitrock said of the mask wearing.

She also noted the district has had a number of positive cases, had some students that have had to quarantine being close contacts, but as far as it can tell from the data it has, because of the safety measures that have been in place it hasn’t seen the virus spread within a school.

According to charts that Whitrock presented at the meeting, which she intends to update and make public so that the community has access to it as well, the first week of school the district had three positive cases —all of which came from before school started — and 19 people quarantining.

The second week, the district had four staff quarantining and 39 students in quarantine spread pretty evenly across the four schools.

The third week saw one staff member and two students test positive, while eight staff members and 56 students quarantined. Half of those 56 students quarantined came at Murray Park, where the districts elects to send the entire classroom home for two weeks after a positive case due to the challenge of ensuring social distancing among the younger group of children.

Whitrock later acknowledged that another Murray Park class began quarantining Monday.

She turned the floor over to District Physician Dr. Jeanne Lyke and DeAnn Thurman, president of SSM Health’s Ripon Medical Center and Waupun Memorial Hospital, to get their opinions on the matter. Both encouraged masks.

“I think as we learn more about COVID, the data clearly shows that mask wearing is an effective mitigation strategy both in community and health-care setting,” Jeanne Lyke said, pointing to the rising cases and percentage of positive cases in Fond du Lac and Green Lake counties. “As the medical advisor of the district, I strongly encourage the board to continue the mask mandate after the governor’s order expires at the end of the month.”

“It’s an easy way to help prevent respiratory droplets from traveling in the air, and when you have these kids … wearing the mask, it helps coughs, sneezes, those that talk or raise their voices. And so it’s a simple way to slow and prevent the spread,” Thurman added. “We’ve done it now in a hospital and we do have data to show that while we have positive cases in the hospital, our staff are less at risk is the fact that we’re using proper personal protection equipment, including masking. I also would advocate continuing use of masks at school.”

After hearing the recommendations and explaining data models the district is using, Whitrock was asked by School Board member Betsy Heffernan now that numbers are more readily available to the community, what the points are where it will adjust its plan.

“I liken it to snow days,” Whitrock said. “You wish there was this perfect matrix of if/then and you could go right down and make a clear-cut … decision. What we’re doing is looking at multiple data points and really beginning to build that understanding of what’s happening.”

She added that she thinks the goal for the district is to return to that in-person learning and get life back to normal as much as possible, but that it doesn’t want to do anything by moving too quickly that would trigger it having to go back to full-time virtual learning.

“I sent a message out to families that we were not looking to make a move to either virtual or face-to-face quickly,” Whitrock said, noting she would want to get the board’s opinion before returning full-time. “

“We want to make sure that we have time to collect the data and based on what we’re seeing, staying in the place that we are is a good place to be. It’s also allowing staff to just get comfortable with what they’re trying to do and maneuver and manage.”

The superintendent mentioned she is proud of what she is seeing in Ripon schools, saying students are “sitting there, working so hard to do the right thing because they so want to stay in school. She also was thankful of the technology the district has, noting she feels bad for those who don’t have it.

Despite being pleased, Whitrock acknowledged in questions she was asked that there have been some challenges, which include a shortage of substitutes and trying to balance the in-person and virtual learners.

Substitute teachers she said were a problem even before COVID and now there are some retired teachers who do not feel comfortable teaching a class due to being vulnerable.

Whitrock added the district communicated with families that virtual learning would not look the same way it did in spring when the teacher was online with all it students.

“You now have a teacher who has a classroom of 17, 18 students and they have five students who are online and you may have a new student who just started quarantining who doesn’t remember or know how to log in …” she said. “For the teacher to stop for 10 minutes to assist that student as 18 students wait; that’s a recipe for disaster.”

Whitrock added she thinks the district is offering more than what it said it would, but isn’t perfect.

“A plan looks great on paper and then when you start to live it out you find out that just getting hundreds of kids out of the building at the end of the day and not having them all cluster is taking a lot of time,” she said. “And a good portion of that end-of-the-day time that we had hoped would be planning with our virtual students is just getting those kids out safely and adjusting bussing.”

While Whitrock has been pretty pleased with how school has gone the first three weeks, Sperger questioned Jeannie Lyke on if there has been any data on mental and physical health for kids who aren’t in school and don’t have that bonding time with fellow students.

“I think developmentally to support the social, emotional, academic development of children they need to be in school as much as possible,” she said. “If we learned anything this spring is about the multiple function that the school serves in supporting children and their families. We don’t have any good metrics or published studies regarding emotional development from the shutdown in the spring, but I think that will be forthcoming over the next several months.”

Jeanne Lyke added in speaking with families in her classroom that they are much happier in the hybrid model than they were in the full-virtual model this past spring.

“I think the kids feel more accountability as far as knowing they are working from home one day, but are going to have to show up in the classroom the next,” she said. “And I think especially for our younger students that we have in school full time … the social and emotional development, even if it’s artificial and not ideal, it’s far better than what they were getting.”

The doctor also was asked by School Board member Nate Zimdars how many students are not wearing masks for health reasons.

“In general there are very few medical reasons that children shouldn’t wear a mask,” Lyke said. “Throughout all districts I work with, I’ve written exactly two exemption letters, both for kids with pretty significant special needs. Kids with asthma, if they’re having trouble with a mask, should probably be evaluated for better control of their asthma, but I would say it’s pretty uniform across the pediatric community that exceptions to mask wearing are quite limited.”

Zimdars was grateful for the information Jeannie Lyke and the administration was able to provide.

“I know the comment was made earlier that we as a board should act with data at the tips of our fingers and I certainly appreciate having data from a variety of sources for us to base our decisions off of,” he said.

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