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School districts in lower transmission areas navigate CDC, DPI mask guidance ahead of school year

P 10 MASKS IN SCHOOLS

MONROE (WKOW) -- Without federal, state or local mask mandates, school districts throughout southern Wisconsin are forced to adopt masking policies of their own -- which some districts in areas with lower coronavirus transmission are finding is a complicated task.

Monday, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) laid out suggested plans for schools in Wisconsin to keep students safe in the fall. Those recommendations include promoting COVID-19 vaccines, encouraging distancing, continued testing for COVID-19 and requiring students and staff members to be masked -- regardless of vaccination status.

That masking guidance echoes the CDC's guidance for schools from two weeks ago, which recommends universal masking in all schools.

The day before the CDC issued its guidance, the School District of Monroe Board of Education adopted a policy that made masks optional to start the year.

"Literally the next day, the CDC switched their guidance," said Superintendent Rick Waski.

Waski says the plan Monroe had in place was to keep masks optional unless he, as the superintendent, decided that the situation either in the district or the community had changed enough to require masks. At that point, Waski says masks would be required until the next school board meeting, where the board would vote whether to make the requirement permanent.

"We're continuing to monitor local conditions," Waski said.

According to the CDC's COVID Data Tracker, Green County has only moderate coronavirus transmission. In general, the CDC is recommending people (including those who are vaccinated) mask up in areas where there is substantial or high transmission.

But the CDC guidance is different for schools, where the agency says masking should be universal regardless of transmission rates.

Still, the School District of Monroe is making masks optional until conditions in that community get worse.

"Students are only in school a third of the day," Waski said. "If their behaviors are different outside of school than they are in school, what we would mandate in the end isn't going to stop the spread of COVID."

Many public commenters at Monday's school board meeting advocated for a mask mandate.

"It's much easier to loosen up on the protocols than it is to try to put them in place," one person said.

Others felt a mandate would be a step too far.

"Is this spike enough to warrant going back to the mask mandates that we had previously?" another asked.

Health experts maintain that even if there is lower transmission in an area, students should be masked.

"Six or seven or eight hours is a big chunk of the day," said Dr. Ellen Wald, chair of pediatrics at the UW School of Medicine. "It's a time when they're in close proximity with 20 to 30 other children in a single room. That doesn't happen in the rest of the day."

Dr. Wald believes strongly in masks for students, partially due to the threat of COVID-19, but also because of the resurgence in non-COVID viruses.

She's also the pediatrician-in-chief at American Family Children's Hospital.

"The floors are filled with children with asthma, bronchiolitis, pneumonia caused by these respiratory viruses that usually circulate in the winter," Dr. Wald said.

She's a strong believer in universal masking in schools.

"The most prudent thing is to begin the school year with masks," Dr. Wald said.

Waski says in the absence of state mandates, districts like Monroe have to make decisions that their families feel comfortable with.

"This is a situation where it's impossible to find a middle ground because people are so passionate," he said.

Most of the board meeting Monday was hammering out the threshold at which the district would require masks. Those specifics will likely be voted on at the next meeting in two weeks. The board may also consider outright requiring masks for kindergarten through 5th grade.

Kids under 12 years old are currently unable to be vaccinated.