Three area schools make masks optional

“The only guarantee is that this is an ever-changing scenario. We will pivot quickly, if necessary.”

The Arcadia, Blair-Taylor and Whitehall school districts all held public hearings Monday night after announcing plans to make face coverings optional for students and staff to begin the 2021-22 school year.

Arcadia’s plan states that masks will remain optional “unless a public health order is put in place that would require the school district to comply.”

“The only thing (is) if we saw some major transmission happening at school, we may do a temporary ‘Hey, we want people to mask up’ just try to slow it down,” Lance Bagstad, Arcadia superintendent, said. “But we would also at that point put a deadline date on it that we would say ‘okay for two weeks we’re going to try to slow the spread and then we’re gonna end it again.’”

The plans released by B-T and Whitehall give the superintendent power to mandate masks should there be a rise in cases. 

“If we need to require masks to stay open, that’s what we will do,” Mike Beighley, Whitehall superintendent, said. “We know that they work. Look at our attendance last year. Even our other illnesses were down last year.”

B-T Superintendent Jeff Eide said having  flexibility is important.

“We have the option to say ‘hey, we can do that for a short amount of time,’” Eide said. “If it’s all of a sudden mandated, I have to have a specific school board meeting to not have it at that time.”

All three districts reiterated that federal law requires that masks be worn on school buses.

The county health department along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state Department of Health Services have all recommended that districts require masks for staff and students, regardless of vaccination status. The Department of Public Instruction also recommended that districts mandate masks. 

“Our local schools continue to employ many COVID-19 mitigation strategies including cleaning, contact tracing, physical distancing, and symptom monitoring. We have discussed the mask recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and will continue to monitor COVID-19 trends within each school district,” Kaila Baer, of the county health department said in a statement. “At this time, Trempealeau County has “high” transmission of COVID-19 according to the CDC and we recommend that all individuals wear masks in public settings.”

Beighley said that much of the guidance currently being shared statewide targets the schools that were not open last year.

“We learned a great deal about how things were transmitted, when they weren’t (by being open last year),” Beighley said. “The only guarantee is that this is an ever-changing scenario. We will pivot quickly, if necessary.” 

The hearings for Arcadia, B-T and Whitehall were held Monday as part of each district’s regular monthly meetings. All schools are planning on having students in school five days a week and only Whitehall offered to keep remote options available, though that would require specific permission from the appropriate principal. 

Arcadia and Whitehall meetings were attended by about 10 members of the public, with each having one speaking, both were in favor of making masks optional. 

“I think you guys did a great job last year also having our kids in school as much as possible. I know that was really appreciated by many parents, and I think our area reflects that in the jobs, people being able to stay at work and not having to worry about daycare,” resident Kris Van Acker said. “So you’re doing a great job.”

The Blair-Taylor meeting had residents speaking on both sides of the issues. One resident suggested that COVID-19 will continue in the area for the foreseeable future and, because people are social creatures, everyone will have to learn to adapt. He noted that previous mask mandates did not stop the disease from spreading.

Another resident suggested that masks would help keep the school open, pointing out the difference in quarantine procedures based on if students were wearing masks. “I think we have to look at what our public health experts are telling us. If masking in school is going to help us keep our schools open, is going to prevent quarantining for students, as we just talked about masking would impact whether or not a student would have to be quarantined.”

All of the administrators suggested that the spread within their school districts was slow enough that they were comfortable with having masks be optional. According to the DHS, there have been four new cases in Whitehall and Blair-Taylor over the past seven days and three in Arcadia. 

Bagstad said the district feels they learned a lot from being in person last year and how masks worked. As of Monday, the seven-day average for Arcadia School District boundaries is 2.7 cases, the superintendent told the board. 

“That’s 13-hundredths of one percent, so I feel very comfortable recommending this plan and sticking with that plan,” Bagstad said. 

Overall, 56.4 percent of Trempealeau County residents are fully vaccinated, according to the DHS. Arcadia (41.8) and G-E-T (49.9) are the only districts in the Times area that have more than 40 percent of the residents vaccinated. Whitehall is next highest at 37.9 percent followed by Independence (36.9) and B-T (35.7). 

Arcadia, B-T and Whitehall have all published their plans on their school websites and the plans will remain live, being updated as needed. 

 

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