School Board rolls back mask mandate and COVID restrictions as pandemic wanes

Taylor Scott, Managing Editor

The River Valley School Board met June 10 as the school year wrapped up to take action on their COVID-19 policies put in place during the pandemic, as well as the resignation of an art teacher and the hiring of a science teacher.

River Valley School District Office

With the board set to take up policies on masking, resident and parent Dana Sanftleben spoke out during public comment against masks, vaccines and contact tracing, and for more transparency in the policy process.

“The students should be able to breathe freely and speak freely,” stated Sanftleben. “I think the staff should be able to do the same.”

School Nurse Jordyn Wendhausen provided an annual report on services provided during the school year, stating that the total number of confirmed cases within the district was 57 over the school year and outlined taking over with contact tracing from the Sauk County Health Department.

“This year was overwhelming at times, administration was wonderful helping us out and all of the board members have been great reaching out to ask questions,” said Wendhausen.

The board heard from Elementary Principal Carla Peterson and took up an end of school year review of reports for the Achievement Gap Reduction (AGR) program.

“Our percent of students that actually achieved our goals this year is much lower than it usually is,” said Peterson. “I didn’t change the goals, I continued to keep the goals as we’ve had in the last few years, knowing that we missed a number of months to school last year and that virtual is never a great thing for kindergarten through third graders and that’s really what the target focus was but we decided to keep our goals high.”

Peterson stated she will use the data to plan for the Fall and assess where extra intervention is needed to make up for learning loss.

“It’s not a great percentage of kids making those benchmarks, but great information for us to move into the next year with and really concentrate where we need to support,” finished Peterson.

Board member Frederic Iausly followed up with a question to Peterson about ensuring these students don’t fall behind, suggesting remedial and summer school as a way to get them back on track. Peterson said that summer school was due to start on June 14 and that 107 elementary students had signed up for remedial education. High School Principal Darby Blakley shared that 55 high school students were invited to summer school. Middle School Principal James Radtke shared that 35 middle school students had signed up for summer school.

District Administrator Loren Glasbrenner presented a summary of 2021-22 open enrollment applications, with the number of new students who have applied for open enrollment for next
year at 13 new in and 20 new out. This is in addition to continuing open enrollment students at 47 students in and 124 students out.

As approved at the March 11 school board meeting, the River Valley School District will be partnering with the Medford School District to offer a full-time virtual school option starting in 2021-22 for River Valley residents to attend Medford’s Rural Virtual Academy. Under this arrangement, students will still be able to participate in co-curricular activities in person at River Valley since they are counted as River Valley students.

As the board next took up the mask mandating policies, Board President Kathy Jennings reassured the board that any decisions would affect only summer school and that masking and COVID restrictions would be taken back up for reassessment before the fall semester.

“We feel the community is in a place now where they support going masking-optional. People who have had the chance to be vaccinated have been vaccinated, vaccines are still available and just that the demand to be getting the vaccine is going down,” shared Jennings, before inviting any board member that was strongly opposed to rolling back the mask mandate to speak.

No board member shared strong opposition to rolling back the mandates. Board member Sara Young asked that the issue be revisited regularly as case levels change and board member Deb Nelson shared her concerns regarding elementary students not being able to get vaccinated.

“They’ve been talking about an uptick in adolescent cases and I just don’t want to see us take the masks away inside for our larger group of summer school kids and have something happen that we don’t want to happen in our district,” shared Nelson.

Iausly shared that he had small concerns but emphasized the need for small steps forward and that students will be able to wear masks if they choose, while also stressing that he felt every decision made on masking had been made in an open forum.

Board member Elisabeth Minich stated her concern that the proposed policy looked final, rather than being open to reinstatement if cases rose again. Young stated her support for reinstating a mask mandate in the future based on guidance from the county health department.

Ultimately, the board voted to roll back the mask mandate on a vote of 6-1, with Nelson voting no, John Bettinger absent and one vacancy on the board.

According to board action and a statement by Glasbrenner, effective June 10: face coverings are optional for all indoor district activities; face coverings are optional for all outdoor district activities; face coverings are optional on district transportation; district staff will be allowed to attend off campus workshops; shared equipment will be utilized in courses and activities where its necessary to complete the objectives of the course or activity; as the CDC has backed off on the probability of surface transmission, the district will go back to normal cleaning protocols imposed on those utilizing our indoor spaces for students, faculty, and the community; visitor access will return to pre pandemic guidelines, which require all visitors to check-in at the respective school office; face coverings will be optional but not required for all visitors; the 2020-21 River Valley School District COVID-19 guidelines are no longer applicable beginning on Thursday, June 10, 2021; no students, staff , or visitors will be asked by any district employee or designee about their vaccination status; students and staff members that exhibit COVID-like symptoms or test positive for COVID-19 must remain home; quarantine procedures regarding COVID-19 will be required for any positive test results and any persons with COVID-like symptoms; individuals will be asked to be at home until they are symptom-free or test negative or attain a doctor’s note; communication with our nursing staff remains important to the well-being of the whole; the River Valley School District will continue to follow the Sauk County Health Department Guidelines for reporting and investigating COVID-19 symptoms and cases; close contacts and their families will continue to be informed by the district school nurses; in addition, if a staff member or student tests positive, all families in that building will be notified of the findings; this will provide each family with an opportunity to make an informed choice for sending their student(s) to school; even with masks as an optional choice, the River Valley School District will continue to encourage social distancing, frequent hand sanitizing, and frequent hand washing when possible; the health and wellness of students, families, and staff remain a priority throughout the summer.

Check the district website for additional information related to COVID-19 guidelines & updates:

The Board heard from Jennings’ appointment of Sara Carstensen to fill the Area 4 board seat vacancy that was due to resignation. Carstensen will fill the seat until April 25, 2022. At the 2022 Spring election, a candidate will be elected to fill the remaining one year of the term, which expires in April 2023.

“I’m interested only because I truly believe that being involved is how you maintain and progress and I just want to be a part of that,” shared Carstensen, before signing her oath of office. “My son’s been here his whole life, I’ve been here my whole life and I want to keep seeing it thrive.”

Other action taken by the board:

  • Approved the following policies for 1st Reading: Distribution of Electronic and Printed Material, Academic Honors and High School Laude System, Exhibit Laude Chart, Public Participation at Board Meetings and Rural Virtual Academy: Organization for Instruction, School Day.
  • Accepted the resignation of Haylee Rognholt, Middle School art teacher, who resigned effective at the end of this school year.
  • Increased .6 FTE science teacher position to 1.0 FTE and hired Claire Eno to fill the High School science teacher vacancy created by Mike Hill’s resignation.