Apr. 9—CAMERON — Going against the advice of public health officials, the Cameron school district this week ended its mask requirement for students and staff.
The Cameron school board on Tuesday night voted 3-2 to stop requiring masks in all of its schools, and the policy took effect Wednesday.
Board members and many district parents believed the COVID-19 pandemic had reached a point where families could make their own decision about students wearing masks, said Cameron schools district administrator Joe Leschisin.
"I respect the decision of the board," Leschisin said, noting that statistics show children are at a very small risk of death or hospitalization from the coronavirus and that about 80% of district staff members are vaccinated.
In the first two days of school since the requirement was lifted, Leschisin estimated that only 5% to 10% of students wore masks to class. That suggests a lot of Cameron parents aren't overly concerned about the potential threat to students posed by COVID-19, he said.
The decision comes at a time when cases are on the rise in Wisconsin, fueled by more contagious variants that are increasingly prominent in children.
The state reported 1,046 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, the largest total since Feb. 11. Cases are growing most among people 18 and younger, Dr. Ryan Westergaard, a chief medical officer at the state Department of Health Services, said in a media briefing.
Barron County Public Health and the Wisconsin Department of Health Services still strongly recommend that schools keep mask mandates in place, even though the state Supreme Court overturned Gov. Tony Evers' statewide mask mandate last week, said Laura Sauve, Barron County's health officer.
"We know masks work in preventing the spread of COVID-19," Sauve said, stressing that the reversal of the statewide order was a decision about the legality of how the governor issued the order and not about the effectiveness of face coverings.
"We understand that these are hard decisions to make," Sauve said. "This is why there are local and state health departments to provide guidance and recommendations. At this time the recommendation is for schools to keep all mitigation strategies in place, including masks."
New deaths reported
COVID-19 has killed 76 people in Barron County since the start of the pandemic last spring, including three new deaths reported Thursday, according to DHS. The county has had 5,572 cases.
"We are concerned that the decision made by the Cameron school district to make masks optional may impact the health of the students, staff and families in the Cameron school district area as well as potentially all of Barron County," Sauve said.
As the spring semester moved along, Lischisin said the district started seeing more resistance to wearing masks from students and parents, with some questioning the requirement at board meetings.
The school board last week called a special meeting Tuesday — the day after Evers' latest statewide mandate had been scheduled to expire — to consider removing the mask requirement from the district's dress code.
An email about the issue Thursday to the parents of all 1,110 Cameron students yielded only a few dozen responses — about half in favor of keeping the mask requirement and half calling for it to cease, Lischisin said.
Lischisin didn't dispute that masks reduce transmission of the virus and acknowledged he had hoped the state mandate would stay in place so the district didn't have to face the decision on its own.
"I'm disappointed that our local public schools and school boards are left to have to make this decision, but I also know that when I look at the data there are many activities that kids will be involved with that put them at more risk of serious injury than what we know right now about COVID," he said, citing drugs, alcohol, vaping, driving and mental health problems as examples.
"We had to make a decision about if we're in it for the long haul with masks," Lischisin said, maintaining that resistance to masks likely would have picked up as the temperature got higher this spring or in summer school. "I don't take this lightly. There are few people who lose more sleep about keeping kids safe than me."
State health officials made it clear Thursday they believe Wisconsinites should continue wearing masks in public even though more than 2 million residents, or 35% of the state's population, have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine and 21.9% are fully vaccinated.
"I don't think we should be changing anything," Westergaard said. "I think the idea that because the mask mandate has been taken away that we should stop asking our people in our community or our businesses or particularly our schools to wear masks ... would be a grave mistake. We should continue to wear masks until we're at a point when we have community-level immunity and we know that we're safe, and we're not safe now."
Likewise, Julie Willems Van Dijk, deputy secretary of the state health department, said the end of the state mandate "doesn't decrease one iota the need for everyone to behave as if there is a state mask mandate."
"The worst thing in the world we can do right now is say, "No mandate, no mask," because we are seeing spread of variants and we need to use the mechanisms we have in place to prevent spread," Willems Van Dijk said.
State Department of Public Instruction spokesman Chris Bucher said the agency "supports the wearing of masks by all staff and students" in Wisconsin schools, based on guidance outlined by DHS and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
However, Bucher conceded it is up to local school boards to decide if they want to follow those public health guidelines.
The response from Cameron area residents to ending the mask requirement has been overwhelmingly positive, with two or three times as many people thanking the district for making the decision as criticizing it, Lischisin said.
While Lischisin recognizes the policy change will add anxiety for some students, he said it will reduce mental health concerns for many others by giving them the feeling of normalcy they have been craving.
The district will continue to do extra cleaning and attempt to maintain social distancing among students, he said.
Unity school district in Clark and Marathon counties also made face coverings optional as of March 31, according to a letter to families posted on the district website.
The district's revised COVID-19 plan indicates that masks generally are encouraged among students, although they will continue to be required for large group assemblies, in instances when social distancing cannot be followed, on school transportation and at interscholastic athletic events as defined by the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association or conference.
District employees will be required to wear face coverings until at least May 1, or after a majority of staff members are vaccinated.