By SARAH PARKER | County Line Editor
To combat a new Covid-19 outbreak, Royall High School students will be in virtual learning until Monday, Oct. 4, plus masks will be required for all staff and students through October, the board of education decided at its emergency meeting Thursday.
Though the board unanimously agreed to suspend in-person instruction for high schoolers, it was split on a mask requirement, with board members Tom Trepes, Marie Vitcenda and Loretta Kranz voting for the measure and Sara Palamaruk and Doug Waterman voting against it. The board will review its mask policy at its Oct. 25 regular board meeting.
As of Thursday, the district had 16 active cases at the high school, and all but one of those were unvaccinated, Gruen noted. One of the unvaccinated students had been infected with Covid-19 about one year ago and now has tested positive a second time.
Royall has tallied 21 Covid-19 cases since the start of the school year; in comparison, it had 35 overall during the 2020–21 school year. The district had no cases in September 2020, Gruen added.
Moreover, the Juneau County Health Department has flagged about half of the high school enrollment — roughly 80 students — as close contacts who must quarantine. Some students are on a close-contact list two or three times, according to school nurse Hana Benish.
“It’s just circulating,” she said, adding that six more high school students have pending tests, and the outcome could result in an even longer quarantine list.
By closing the high school, the board and administration hope to stop the spread among that age group plus reduce the possibility of transmission to the intermediate and elementary schools.
The high school building will be closed and will be cleaned in the interim. Also, no sports or other co-curriculars will be offered until Oct. 4.
Administration hopes masks will prevent county-required quarantines
By masking all students and staff, Royall’s administration hopes to largely eliminate the need to quarantine close contacts who show no symptoms and test negative for Covid-19. Though it isn’t the school district’s policy to quarantine students in those categories, the Juneau County Health Department has overridden Royall’s authority on the matter.
“Juneau County has sent many kids home, some of them healthy,” Gruen said.
By requiring masks, the district could lower the threshold of what defines a close contact from 6 feet to 3 feet, according to CDC recommendations. Gruen noted that he thought the district could abide by those rules and thus eliminate the need to quarantine students.
Gruen added that he believed masks played an important role in driving down student-to-student transmission last year, suggesting that possibly very little to no spread had occurred at school.
Last year, Gruen had pressed the health department to create an incentive for mask-wearing.
“(The health department) told us a mask is the key, but there is no candy for wearing a mask. You’re still quarantining us the same,” he said.
Also, many schools across the state are transitioning to a mask-required policy, including West Salem, North Fond Du Lac, Riverdale, Mineral Point, Richland Center and Chippewa Falls, Gruen said.
Waterman replied, “But you also have a bunch of schools not masking,” maintaining his position that masking should remain the parents’ choice.
He added, “Kids are kids. They’re (only) going to be masked when somebody’s around.”
Trepes responded, “I understand, but about 75 percent of kids will mask.”
Chris Brown of Brown Bus Service, the district’s contractor, noted that students mostly had been amenable to wearing masks while riding the buses. According to federal regulations, masks must be worn on buses.
Supporting the district’s decision to require masks, Trepes said, “I agree with masks,” he said. “I know Doug doesn’t. That’s fine — I don’t care. I just agree with them. I got the shot. When I go places, I wear masks. Maybe I’m paranoid, but I’d like to live to see 70. I have grandkids in this school … friends’ kids in the school. I don’t want nobody to die. I don’t want nobody to be on a ventilator.”
Adding that she would like the board to reevaluate the policy on a fixed date, Vitcenda concurred with Trepes, saying, “If the high school is bad enough that we’re going to shut it down, I agree, we need to take care of our little kids.”
At present, very few elementary students are wearing masks, noted the teachers who were in attendance. But parents also were under the impression that their children would not be quarantined, they added.
Hana Benish, the school nurse, advocated for an immediate mask policy for all students and staff, suggesting that an outbreak at the elementary school was inevitable and mask wearing could lessen its severity.
“I know no one agrees with me,” she said. (Gruen interjected that he did in fact agree with her.)
Benish added, “I don’t want to send our kids home (to quarantine). I don’t want any kids to die. And if masks will help that, that’ll be great. And if you want a kid to die before you change your mind on masks, you pick your kid that you want to die from our school that will change your mind. It’s coming to the elementary, and we have some sick kids in our elementary school, and I won’t want anything to happen to them.”
Spread almost entirely among unvaccinated
After learning that Royall’s outbreak was occurring almost entirely among those who hadn’t been vaccinated, Chris Brown questioned why parents wouldn’t want to vaccinate their children, citing the case of a Mondovi, Wis., high school player who just died of the virus.
But the district cannot force students to get the Covid-19 shot, Waterman responded.
Gruen noted that close to 80 percent of the school’s staff had received the vaccine, adding that those who hadn’t gotten the shot had discussed the matter with him. In most cases, “they have legitimate reasons,” he said, “and many of those (staff members) mask.”
Gruen added, “I’m not a doctor. I trust the doctors. My entire family is vaccinated for that reason. I’m not judging other people.”
Board, administration at odds over sports
Gruen requested that the board consider allowing sports to resume Oct. 2 if the data suggests that students can safely play. Due to the number of players who had either tested positive or were close contacts, it was unlikely a football game could be played, but participating in cross country or volleyball could be feasible, Gruen said.
But board members advocated for a total shutdown of school activities until Oct. 4.
“It’s all or nothing,” Waterman said, and Trepes agreed with him, saying, “I think it’s more important to get (the virus) out of here. I love sports; don’t get me wrong.”
Gruen told the Waterman and Trepes, “I agree to disagree.”
In the end, the board stipulated that no sports would be played until Oct. 4, but ultimately Gruen will have control of the sports program otherwise.