‘Incredibly reckless’: Jefferson County health official, community members plead schools to do more to stop COVID-19 spread

Fort Atkinson passes mask requirement Thursday

FORT ATKINSON, Wis. – A Fort Atkinson school board meeting drew an emotional, divided crowd Thursday evening before ultimately implementing a mask requirement, as districts grapple with rising COVID-19 cases and spread within schools.

Police have been present as a “proactive measure” at board meetings since August according to a district spokesperson. Board members took pains to explain why disruptions would not be allowed. Still, one woman was thrown out for disrupting the meeting in the first half hour of public comment, which extended nearly two hours.

The district went into the meeting without a mask mandate. The crowd was fairly split, with passionate comment from both sides of the mask debate.

“I don’t think you should be guilted, pressured into making choices for everybody,” one woman said to the board. “We all need to take charge and make our own choices whether to mask our children or not.”

While some called it a matter of freedom and rising above fear, others said it comes down to safety and using common sense. That includes Jennifer Slak, who pulled her young daughter out of school because of COVID spread.

“Please make a motion to amend current practices, to include contact tracing, quarantining of exposed children, and most importantly a mask requirement,” Slak said. “That’s really the least we can do for some of the most important people in our lives.”

One nurse mentioned the recent death of a seventh grader in the district, whose mother said on a GoFundMe page that COVID-19 played a role. She asked the crowd not to use his death in argument during the meeting.

Contentious school board meetings are playing out across the country, and Jefferson County is not immune.

‘Absolutely devastating’: Jefferson County Epidemiologist urges policy change

Samroz Jakvani, an epidemiologist and public information officer with the Jefferson County Health Department has been attending many of these school board meetings across the county. From his perspective, contentious is an understatement.

“(They’re) horribly contentious,” Jakvani said, adding that some of his messages have been met with booing. “There have been instances in which the police were called. Lake Mills had to cancel their meeting or adjourn it shortly after it started.”

Looking at the data, he’s noticing a trend impossible to ignore.

“We are getting multiple case notifications every hour,” Jakvani said. “Schools right now are causing the spread of COVID in Jefferson County. That’s almost undeniable at this point. It’s a huge issue because there’s so many things we can do to prevent this.”

He worries the advice of federal, state and local health professionals is falling on deaf ears.

“It is undisputable that masks at the population level help reduce transmission,” Jakvani said. “This is undeniable, yet we continue to have folks say it’s not effective.”

Lake Mills has a mask mandate, but many others in the district do not. Just this week, the Jefferson School District repealed its mask requirement policy.

At the start of Thursday, Fort Atkinson, Johnson Creek and Waterloo school districts were mask optional.

In a letter from district administrator Brian Henning, Waterloo says it implemented a mask policy following a directive from the Jefferson County Health Department Thursday afternoon.

To clarify Friday, Jakvani called the message a “strong advisory” provided early this week to require masks “due to quickly rising case rates in the school-age population, in their schools, and in other school districts. We did not issue a mandate.”

Fort Atkinson board members voted to enact a face mask requirement through Oct. 26 three hours into its Thursday night meeting.

“Where masking isn’t occurring and quarantine is not enforced, we’re seeing rapid spread in classrooms,” Jakvani said. “It is incredibly reckless and endangering.”

The case for close contact quarantine

In settings where everyone is masked, those within 0 to 3 feet are considered close contacts and should quarantine, Jakvani said, but that’s a different story for those who are unmasked.

“Those within 0 to 6 feet are considered close contacts, but really in a classroom environment you can consider all individuals in the classroom exposed if they’re in there a significant amount of time and unmasked,” he said.

The state’s Department of Health Services recommends that “anyone who is not fully vaccinated and is a close contact of a confirmed case should be quarantined.”

Prior to Thursday afternoon, the Waterloo School District was no longer requiring close contacts quarantine, vaccinated or not, with District Administrator Brian Henning writing that students “as long as they remain symptom free will have the option to quarantine.”

After the county’s advisory, the district wrote in an email Thursday to parents and staff that “in addition to the face covering mandate, the District will also continue to contact trace and enforce quarantining of close contacts until October 12, 2021.”

When asked about their quarantine recommendation policy, the Fort Atkinson communications director pointed to this COVID-19 Response Plan Protocols, which states if someone is informed by the health department that they’re a close contact, they should quarantine if unvaccinated, even with no symptoms.

Though they didn’t take action on this Thursday night, board members talked about the potential to bring back more extensive contact tracing within the school district itself, noting that that would take additional staff power.

Johnson Creek’s Superintendent Michael Garvey said they notify parents of close contacts so they can monitor for developing symptoms.

“We are not quarantining symptomless contacts unless Jefferson County has determined quarantine is in order,” Garvey wrote.

When interviewed Wednesday, Jakvani said the department absolutely recommends unvaccinated close contacts quarantine, but worried his advice, along with student safety, were falling to the wayside.

“To see that we are conveying to them the risk, the guidance, letting them know what they can do quite easily to prevent the spread occurring in schools, then to see them cast their votes as a ‘No’ and see them say we’re going to do away with all of this and pretend COVID-19 isn’t real is absolutely devastating,” he said Wednesday.

Thursday night, Jakvani praised the vote by the Fort Atkinson school board, calling it a critical step.

“While requiring masks is one of many mitigation measures that can be implemented, it is one of the most impactful tools,” he said. “We anticipate this will be very instrumental in preventing further in-school transmission and helping to reduce county wide case rates