Some Wisconsin schools shed mask requirements after court ruling

A week after the state Supreme Court threw out Wisconsin’s mask requirement, some schools are no longer requiring face coverings to prevent the spread of COVID-19.   

This week the Paris Consolidated School District in Kenosha County stopped requiring masks. District Administrator Roger Gahart emailed families Monday, explaining that since the district never had its own mask policy, the end of the statewide mandate meant masks became optional in the district. 

“Our district is simply leaving the choice of wearing face masks or not wearing face masks up to the people,” Gahart said in an emailed statement. 

At least four other districts in rural parts of the state decided to let teachers and students go without masks. 

The moves come as concerns are high about the B.1.1.7 COVID variant, which has popped up in school-based outbreaks in Michigan where cases are surging. The variant was also found in the recent outbreak at a Dane County child care center. 

State officials said masks and other precautions are especially important with the threat of the more contagious variants. 

“We need to be aware in some ways that the stakes are higher,” Ryan Westergaard, lead medical officer for the state, said on a media call Thursday. “All of the strategies that we’ve been putting in place in the last year are now more important than ever to protect young people from getting infected.”  

The high court ruled 4-3 last week that Democratic Gov. Tony Evers no longer has the power to issue coronavirus-related health orders, including mask requirements.

Track COVID and the vaccine in Wisconsin: See the latest data on cases, deaths and administered doses

Wisconsin law allows governors to issue health orders for up to 60 days but needs permission from lawmakers to make them last longer than that. Republicans who control the Legislature opposed Evers, and he issued a series of orders to try to keep his policies in place. 

The court ruled he couldn’t do that and invalidated his mask requirement. That left it to local officials to decide whether to require masks.

Some local health departments, like the City of Milwaukee, already had local mandates in place that continue to cover schools in their areas, including Milwaukee Public Schools. In places without mandates, some schools are shedding them.  

The Cameron School Board in northwestern Wisconsin voted 3-2 Tuesday to make masks optional, against the advice of the county health officer. 

About 10% of students continued to wear masks after the change, along with about 60% of staff members, District Administrator Joe Leschisin said Thursday. He said about half of staff members are vaccinated. 

Leschisin said he thinks most students and parents are happier with masks being optional. But he said he would have preferred the state mandate stay in place so that district officials wouldn’t be in a position of making the decision. 

“This was a decision I feel has been shoved down and left in our laps and now we’ve gotten to face the scrutiny one way or another,” Leschisin said. 

The Laona, Three Lakes and Crandon school districts in northern Wisconsin have also made masks optional, at least in some circumstances. 

In a Facebook post, the Laona School District said administrators are still “strongly recommending” the use of masks when students and staff are in close proximity. 

A post by the Three Lakes School District drew more than 150 comments. A comment signed by Jen West, communications director for the district, asked everyone in the comment section to “be kind.” 

“This year has been a constant cycle of hard decisions and varied opinions, and I can guarantee you that for each opinion out there, someone else feels the opposite,” the comment read. “So for this evening, maybe think about enjoying the weather above everything else.”

In Crandon, District Administrator Larry Palubicki said in a letter to families that masks would be optional whenever students and staff can be at least 3 feet apart. 

Other districts have committed to maintaining mandates

A March 31 Facebook post from the Menomonee Falls School District stated, “We are confident that masks are critical to our continued health, and our policy will remain in place, requiring masks until the national pandemic passes.”

Contact Patrick Marley at patrick.marley@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.