SENECA - The COVID mask debate once again dominated the floor during the regular monthly meeting of the Seneca School District, held Monday, Nov. 15.
In accordance with policy, masks were required for the meeting since it was held in the high school building where they were currently required. About five people out of the around 20 present were not masked appropriately (with mouth and nose covered) initially at the meeting.
During the portion of the meeting set for reviewing the current school COVID plan and procedures, Seneca District Administrator Dave Boland, who appeared virtually, briefly reviewed the current protocols which went into effect October 1, 2021. Currently the principles are:
1. Social Distancing: Maximize the distance between individuals, to the greatest extent.
2. Masks: Optional at this time. This could change depending on the number of cases in our local community. If we get cases at school involving three households in a school building, that building will be masked for 14 days. (14 days measured from the last case in the outbreak.)
3. Regular Hygiene: Precautions taken to prevent the spread of disease to the greatest extent possible.
4. COVID testing: Students or staff who show two or more symptoms will have to leave school or be tested for COVID.
Boland added that from the school’s perspective, case-wise, things have remained relatively the same, which coincides with the county levels of cases not ‘dropping off.’ At the time of the meeting, the high school had masks required, and at the elementary school it was optional.
“We have families pulling out, when masks go into effect; we have families, who have pulled kids out until vaccines are fully available; we see it from both sides,” Boland noted. He went onto advise that the plan remain in place as it’s currently being followed.
As is the Seneca School Board’s custom, open comment was allowed during the agenda item. The conversation started with a visibly disgruntled parent speaking to the board unmasked, questioning the masking policy.
“I just don’t understand how we can go all these places like Wal-Mart, Johnson’s, and they don’t force others to wear masks and our kids go to school and they have to wear them. This is a school not a health clinic, and I’m not going to comply. These kids don’t want to wear them either, leave it optional. You should never have more power than the parents,” the woman stated. The woman went on to question what kind of symptoms do students need to show before they “get locked down.”
Seneca School Secretary Ashley Roberts responded that students generally show cold symptoms that can vary across a wide range, adding that they are also tested by her with parent permission.
Following this initial dialog, Seneca School Board President Mark Johnson asked that all present at the meeting please mask up in accordance with the policy. This was met with a lack of compliance on the part of the improperly masked crowd members.
A man who identified himself as a substitute teacher within the district also spoke to masking.
“As a sub, with these changes we take the masks off and then cases go up and we put them back on, what if we didn’t take them off?” the man questioned. “We want to keep schools open. That’s why we mask. We want to keep the levels at a manageable level.”
Once again, Johnson asked the crowd to mask in accordance with the board policy. The woman who initially made statements during the comment period responded by saying “it’s just about control,” and adjusted her mask slightly to cover her mouth.
“In this circumstance, we have the opportunity to do this, and the board has taken the option to take the extra precautions,” noted board member Crisse Reynolds, adding that not every business one goes into gives individuals a choice on masking and that at the school, the board is looking at protecting staff and students with extra precautions.
The conversation continued, touching on the survey, which was sent out to those in the district in regards to their opinions on masks, which yielded mixed results as Boland noted.
Johnson for a third time, and shortly after a fourth time, addressed the crowd, asking that they please adhere to board policy and wear masks.
“I’m not trying to be rude or wield power over you but please, put on a mask,” Johnson asked.
This was met with more hostility from the unmasked portion of the crowd, with one woman in attendance who appeared to be wearing a camouflage scarf loosely off of her face.
“This counts as a face covering but I was working with a lame horse earlier and got something on my shirt and it stinks, I need air,” the woman said.
Board member Tyler Aspenson spoke up in a frustrated sounding tone addressing the board and the community members in attendance,
“The policy is building specific, what’s so hard to understand?” Aspenson questioned. “I’d like to get home at a decent freaking time. I’m sick of this (explicative) I don’t want to sit around and talk about (explicative) masks every night. I’m sick of it!”
Despite Aspenson’s outburst, the conversation on masks continued with another community member urging board members to consider the opinions of alternative medical professionals.
“Vaccines and masks are concerning issues,” the woman said. “In education, you owe it to yourself and your students to research the other side. I care about you a whole lot more than CNN, I guarantee ya.”
Board member Rachael George, who also works at Crossing Rivers Health addressed the community members in attendance.
“I don’t watch the news, we don’t watch it at all in our home, it makes my children and myself upset. But I do work in health care and yes, it is split down the middle,” George said. “But what scares me is people sitting in our emergency room who can’t get transferred (due to hospitals at capacity with COVID cases.)”
George added that recently they’re transferring individuals to Rochester when they’re in need of more extensive care.
The woman added that she “had the COVID,” but didn’t even realize it until she took a test to prove she didn’t have it to her daughter, noting that people need to take their health into consideration before they get sick.
“There are people who don’t have the ability to choose particular aspects of their health,” George retorted. “Genetics can take over, there are people who don’t ask or try to be diabetic, but they are. This has divided the entire nation. The fact is though, we are still a school and we have to keep a perspective to look out for all students. If this all goes haywire and the hospitals are full, then what? We gotta stay in the middle.”
Aspenson began making a motion proposing that masks become optional 28 days from the date of the meeting, which coincided with the vaccine clinic which was held at the school earlier that day.
“Five to 11 year olds can get the vaccine now and the people have been able to make the choice on how to protect their kids,” board member Shawn Lenzendorf added.
Aspenson added to his motion to go optional immediately in the middle school and high school as that group has already had the option to receive both vaccines. However, the question of the fifth grade class being in that building came into play, as that group of students are 10 year olds and only would have received their first vaccine either today or within the last few days. The question of four-year-old kindergartners also subsequently was brought up as they are in the elementary building but currently unable to be vaccinated at all.
Aspsenson proceeded with his motion of middle school and high school becoming mask optional immediately and elementary students to be mask optional following the period of time in which they had the option to be fully vaccinated.
The motion failed to pass, only Aspenson and Brittany Joy voting in favor and the other five board members voting nay.
Board member Charles Clark made the motion to leave the policy as-is until after the holidays. The motion passed with only Aspenson and Joy voting nay.
During the meeting, a plaque of recognition was presented to the wife of longtime board member, the late Larry Kelley.
“Larry brought a wealth of knowledge to the board,” Johnson shared. “He helped the kids, the community and this board and we couldn’t have asked for anything better. He was also by far the most prepared treasurer we ever had.”
Kelley’s wife, Priscilla spoke emotionally about how much serving on the board had meant to her husband, recalling him pouring over the financial notes for hours at a time in preparation for a meeting.
Pay for substitute teachers also brought up discussion amongst the board. At the meeting it was shared that the district had currently paid subs $105 per day with $115 after 10 days of subbing. The increase would not carry over to the following years of subbing, however. It was noted during the discussion that neighboring district North Crawford pays $120 per day across the board.
“We want to be fair to the people coming in to keep our schools open,” said Boland.
At $120 a day, subs will be receiving $15 dollars an hour, it was noted.
Joy made the motion to raise the sub rate to $120 for teachers and offer $150 to any retired teachers; this would be in addition to dropping the 10-day increase, which was on the previous policy.
It was also requested that the board review the paraprofessional sub pay going forward, as many times this school year licensed teacher subs have had to fill in for paras causing some questions with pay rates. Boland advised the board to review the employee handbook and handle it at a future meeting.
In other board news:
• Seneca Co-op Soccer Players thanked the board for the opportunity to co-op with Prairie du Chien and River Ridge to play the sport and noted they look forward to continuing the opportunity
• School breakfast for adults would be increased from $2 to $2.45 as mandated by the DPI
• Tyler Aspenson was elected as the board vice president
• The Spanish Club postponed their trip due to logistic issues with international travel and COVID restrictions• Suggestions are still being accepted for the school mascot