School board unanimously votes to keep mask policy through end of school year
By Jalen Maki
Tomahawk Leader Editor
TOMAHAWK – The School District of Tomahawk Board of Education during its Tuesday, May 11 meeting voted unanimously to keep the district’s mask policy in place until June 7, the first Monday after the end of the 2020-2021 school year.
The board will revisit the policy, which requires all students, staff and visitors to wear face coverings on school grounds, during its meeting on Tuesday, May 25, when it may vote to switch to a policy that “recommends” masks rather than requires them.
The board voted on the policy more than an hour and 40 minutes into a roughly two-hour virtual meeting, during which students, parents, and other members of the public utilized the meeting’s public comment period to speak both in favor of and against mandating the wearing of masks on campus.
Over the course of about 30 minutes, those in favor cited health risks that could possibly occur if the policy were to be removed, while those against the policy pointed to how wearing masks may affect students’ mental and physical health.
At one point in the meeting, more than 220 people were in attendance via Zoom.
The vote came in the wake of weeks of contention among the board, district staff, students, parents, and the public regarding the policy.
The board chose to cancel its meeting on Tuesday, April 27 before it began after numerous members of the public attended the meeting without face coverings. The meeting was rescheduled for Thursday, April 29 and held virtually.
The following week saw daily protests, varying in size, by district students who wanted the wearing of masks in the school building to be optional. On Wednesday, May 5, after a morning assembly allowing students to voice their opinions on the policy, roughly 40 students walked out of school in protest. As many as 60 students were involved in the demonstration by that afternoon.
Reynolds, District Nurse Armstrong discuss policy
District Administrator Terry Reynolds noted that the previous few weeks had been “difficult.”
“There’s two sides to the issue that are very strong both ways,” he stated, adding that he had heard from people on both sides of the mask issue and that it was “good for everyone to voice their concerns and their opinions.”
Reynolds noted that the district’s “point of emphasis all year long” was to follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as well as state and local health officials.
District Nurse Trina Armstrong, who has been the district’s main point of contact with the Lincoln County Health Department (LCHD), noted that the county was still in the “high” category for COVID-19 case burden, or cases per 100,000 people. Lincoln County was at 105.5 cases per 100,000 people as of May 3, which meets the requirements needed to be considered “high.”
Armstrong said LCHD Health Officer and Director Shelley Hersil communicated to her that COVID-19 variants have been identified in Lincoln County, “and they are impacting youth under 18 at this time, causing more severe illness.”
“We know that students typically show fewer severe symptoms than adults do,” Armstrong stated. “But right now, the majority of new cases that we’re seeing are in those under 18.”
Armstrong noted that even though younger students will be able to be vaccinated, “a vast majority of kids are not vaccinated.”
According to statistics Armstrong received from LCHD, only 28 district students ages 16 to 17 had been vaccinated as of May 7, and of those, only about half had received both doses.
Speaking from “a school nurse standpoint,” Armstrong noted that she had worked with students and parents who had requested additional mask breaks, noting that if they did not find the solution appropriate, she hoped the students or parents would reach out to her.
“I have not heard any follow-up concerns from them,” she stated.
Armstrong said she had heard from community members, including an individual who has been a nurse for more than 25 years, who support the mask policy. She also stated that the district “is not out of the woods yet,” noting that the district saw five new COVID-19 cases and 24 people quarantined in April.
The district, as of the meeting, had no active COVID-19 cases.
“I think it’s important to remember that even though our cases are low, that was ultimately our goal, to reach zero positive cases in the district,” Armstrong said. “I don’t feel that now is an appropriate time to let up on that, because even if kids are showing mild symptoms, they are going home to families with elders, immune-compromised, those who aren’t maybe young and healthy like most of our students are.”
Armstrong she had reached out to the district’s medical adviser at Ascension Sacred Heart Hospital in Tomahawk, Dr. Russell S. Sudbury, prior to the meeting. Although Sudbury was unable to return Armstrong’s call, Armstrong noted that Sudbury’s medical assistant said Sudbury “made it very clear to her that his recommendation is that we continue with masks at least through the end of the school year.”
Board members weigh in, vote
Prior to the vote, the board discussed the policy and the district’s next steps.
Jeffrey Johnson said he did not believe the board should “make a swift decision and end (the policy) tonight.”
“I do think that we need to review it often as things change,” Johnson stated.
Dave Long commended those who had reached out to the board about the policy, noting that he was “very grateful” to hear from students who spoke during the meeting.
“That’s an important voice that we don’t always hear,” he stated.
Long, as well as several other board members, voiced his support for choosing a date for the current policy to end or be altered. However, he noted that the situation would be “fluid,” and that mitigation efforts could be reinstated in the future if necessary.
“I also think it’s a distinction that we need to make, it’s maybe a subtle distinction, but the policy should reflect that it not necessarily be ‘optional,’ but it should be ‘recommended’ that people wear masks in the building,” Long said.
After further discussion, a motion to continue to support the current district COVID-19 mitigation requirements until June 7, including requiring face coverings to be worn by all students, staff and visitors in the school facility, passed unanimously.
The board will revisit the policy during its May 25 meeting.