The Ladysmith School Board voted 5-2, Wednesday, to require face coverings indoors for coronavirus protection.

The Aug. 18 decision came after heavily charged debate by the board, which earlier in the meeting heard divided sentiment from students, staff, parents and health officials. Two audience members spoke in favor of a mask mandate. Two spoke against. One thanked the board for trying to do what is best for students without offering an opinion. About a dozen students attended the meeting.

The board was presented with an administrative back-to-school proposal prepared by a task force committee of teachers, support staff, administrators, board members, parents and community members.

It originally called for optional face coverings for those who are fully vaccinated and recommended for those who are not. Although the proposal includes numerous policies to protect individuals from the coronavirus like promoting the vaccine, safety operations, face-to-face instruction, student success, sports, extracurriculars, professional staff development and what happens if a staff member or student tests positive, the hourlong debate focused solely on masks.

COVID-19 vaccines have only been authorized for people ages 12 and up in the U.S.

On the day of the school board’s meeting, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services reported 12 counties are considered as having “very high” COVID-19 activity level, and increase of eight from the prior week’s report. The other 60 counties are all listed as having high activity level. DHS also reported 16 recent COVID-19 deaths, bringing the state’s death toll to 7,499 as the state is averaging 1,224 new coronavirus cases every day.

For the week prior to the school board meeting, the county was averaging about three new COVID-19 cases per day.

Last week, Rusk County ranked “high” for case activity, percent of all tests coming back positive and COVID-19 like symptoms being seen in the emergency room. At the same time, it ranked “low” for emergency department visits for influenza like symptoms.

Also last week, the vaccine series had been completed by 32.6 percent of the county’s population authorized to receive it, compared with 50.4 percent statewide.

Prior to the vote, the board attempted to retool the administrative proposal into something agreeable to both viewpoints on the controversial matter. It didn’t happen.

“We are not recommending. We are mandating,” school board member Melissa Rudack said.

Administrators put a lot of time into drafting the back to school proposal, according to school board member Jeff Wallin. He said students will remove their masks after leaving school and be at just as much risk in the community.

“I don’t want to see a mask mandate right now. I think until we have buy-in in the community for it, it isn’t going to do any good,” Wallin said.

The board will continue to review the local COVID-19 risk in determining if the mask mandate should be altered.

Student Holly Rands addressed the board, detailing the effects of last year’s school face covering mandate. She told the board she understands the pandemic is continuing and people are doing the best they can to minimize the risk of transmission but questioned the effect of masks on quality of life, especially in athletics.

“Imposing this mask order on us again is at best suffocating to us,” Rands said.

Parent Ron Freeman called for making masks optional, presenting information showing small risk for COVID-19 in the school district. “I understand the mask policy is a divisive issue. I understand that masks can drive students away,” he said.

Teacher Pat Zbikowski asked the board to consider a mask mandate, saying the county is a high risk area. “I really am very concerned with the health of our students and staff, and I think the board should consider a mask mandate,” she said.

Parent John Pohlman III told the board to follow Center for Disease Control guidance, especially in classrooms.

“It is mandated your kids go to school. Kids in elementary school don’t have a vaccine option. They are not allowed to get it. Some kids are immunocompromised. Them putting a mask on helps, but everyone having a mask on around them helps a lot more,” Pohlman said.

Parent Rick Rapp thanked the board for trying to do what is right for the school district, weighing benefits and risks.

“This an incredibly difficult time in human society. We are more divided than ever and everything is driven politically,” Rapp said.

The back-to-school proposal was presented to the board by School District Administrator Laura Stunkel. She said the district is better prepared for the coming school year based on experiences gained while managing coronavirus issues last year.

“Social distancing helps. Vaccines help. Masks help,” Stunkel said.

“What did you say about masks? What did you say about masks? You said masks help?” Russell said

“Right,” Stunkel said.

“But we are not doing masks?” Russell said.

While the district may be better adapted now to handle Covid-19, local health officials at the meeting told the board the new Delta variant strain of the coronavirus carries greater risk to the public.

The Centers for Disease Control July 27 update recommends universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status. Children should return to full-time in-person learning in the fall with layered prevention strategies in place.

Wisconsin Department of Health Services supports CDC updated recommendations from July 27, stating that all teachers, staff, students, and visitors of K-12 schools wear masks indoors regardless of vaccination status.

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction continues to follow and recommend the use of the CDC Guidance for Schools and the Wisconsin DHS COVID-19 Schools and Childcare Guidance.

Students last year struggled to keep masks on and became filthy over time, according to school nurse Jennifer Lechleitner. She said her duty is to keep children in schools.

“We really did not have many elementary kiddos that tested positive last year. We kept a lot out due to quarantine from parent contact or household contact,” Lechleitner said. “I personally would like to keep it optional. That is my opinion.”

Rusk County Public Health Officer Anita Zimmer said the difference this year is the new “Delta” variant, adding last year’s “Alpha” strain no longer is a concern. She added the county has a low vaccination rate and low cooperation with contact tracing means data does not provide an accurate picture of virus prevalence in the area.

“Delta is 200 times more transmissable than what we saw last spring. This is a totally different ballgame, so that is what terrifies me about this strain of COVID. It has 1,000 percent more viral load,” Zimmer said.

Zimmer added it is true there were not many COVID cases at the elementary school last year, but parents called for contact tracing often didn’t follow through with testing for their children. She also said many who are called avoid the subject say they aren’t married, have no friends, don’t work and never go anywhere.

“They chose not to take their children in for testing. Not all of them wanted to. A lot of what I heard was if they were positive they knew their kids were positive. So there were more probable cases. They were home anyways because they were quarantined because they had a positive in their household. It was safe for them to stay home, but it didn’t affect our numbers. It didn’t really show a true picture of what was going on in our community.” Zimmer said. “It is very very difficult to show a true picture of what is going on in your community when we have very low vaccination rates and very little cooperation.”

Though there’s no law requiring students to wear masks in Wisconsin. The states largest districts—Madison and Milwaukee—have implemented a mask mandate. School districts in northern Wisconsin with mask mandates include Eau Claire through 8th grade, Superior in elementary school and Hayward and Ladysmith for all individuals.

“I see the outpouring of angry, angry families that don’t want to have this [mask mandate] done but you guys know your responsibility. My responsibility is to keep the community safe and protect everybody,” Zimmer said. “Right now when you look at that graph I sent of the vaccinated people who are being infected by this Delta Variant, that is really scary too.”

Board members voting to amend the back-to-school plan to include an indoor mask mandate were Todd Novakofski, Chrysa Ostenso, Mike Russell, Colleen Peters and Melissa Rudack and wore face coverings the meeting. Those voting against were Jeff Wallin and Gerard Schueller and did not wear face coverings.

The board then approved the plan as amended on a 5-2 decision.

“It sounds like there is a consensus to require masks that is stronger than a recommendation,” Novakofski said, comparing the board’s meeting debate with the administrative back-to-school proposal.

Schueller believes there is a motive to the board’s action as Bruce and Flambeau schools are not requiring face coverings. “I have a feeling we are making this a political statement, and I do not like political statements in the school district. I understand where you guys are coming from. I know exactly where you are coming from,” he said.

“Masks are all we have for protection against this virus,” Ostenso said.

Russell said the back to school plan seems driven by athletics. “So we will try our best and hope no one dies? That is completely unacceptable,” he said.

Rudack isn’t opposed to revisiting the board’s decision if vaccination levels improve. “The fact we are one of the lowest counties in Wisconsin with vaccination rates and the fact that children under 12 can’t be vaccinated I really don’t think it makes sense [to not have a mask mandate],” she said.

Wallin suggested a special school board meeting be held before school starts so the public can attend.

“Then all the public will know. Everybody will know that we are going to vote. We approve this policy, but we vote [at a special meeting] on whether the masks are mandated or not mandated. I don’t think this was clear in here that was what we were voting on,” he said.

Peters, who praised Ostenso for doing more research on the coronavirus than other board members, noted there is a difference between opinion and fact. “I think we have to go with the science,” she said.

Stunkel is concerned that Ladysmith schools are now the only district in the county with a mask mandate, which might lead parents to remove their children from the district. She added the topic will continue to be reviewed.

“The plan is subject to change as things move along,” Stunkel said.

After the meeting was adjourned, a parent confronted the board about its decision.

Parent Yvonne Rands asked board members if they are considering students’ mental state in addition to their health. She asked board members if they have researched each specific mask worn by students to determine each one’s effectiveness.

“We have a new variant,” Peters said.

“And how much data do we have on that, yet,” Rands said.

“It is coming out every day if you listen, and if you read,” Peters said.

“I do, and there is a lot of other information that comes out, too. Are you hearing and reading all that?” Rands said.

“If it comes from Johns Hopkins you can take it to the bank. If you are hearing it from Fox News you can’t,” Peters said.

Rands said her information is coming from medical providers.

“I am not getting it from Fox News, Colleen,” Rands said.

Rands asked board members who they are representing.

Peters told Rands the board has voted.

“I know you have voted, but this is open discussion,” Rands said.

“No it isn’t. No it isn’t. It’s over,” Peters said. “It is too late. We have voted. Next month, come back.”

“And you don’t want to hear from anybody in the meantime?” Rands said.

“Sure we do,” Ostenso said.

“Well, OK, then what are you saying?” Rands said.

“What I am saying is that we heard all the information from everybody. We talked it over. We took our vote, and we said we would talk about it next month. So it is done until next month,” Peters said.

“But we are here,” Ostenso said.

“Wow. Well, that is not very obvious,” Rands said.