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Public weighs in on COVID-19 issues at school

SPOONER– A crystal-clear theme emerged from two recent Spooner Area School Board meetings that together ran more than four hours, most of the time comments from the public: Don't quarantine healthy children, and a corollary: Let parents decide whether their children should be quarantined if they have been exposed to a COVIDpositive student or staff. Don't make it mandatory, as the school does now.

The first meeting was a special board meeting on September 28 to consider moving to an elevated level on the Safe at School Plan and to consider temporarily shifting from in-person classes to remote learning to get past the rash of COVID-positive cases and exclusions at the schools due to contacts with people who have COVID.

Those were not actually voted on. Instead, a motion to close a school only if it cannot be staffed and eliminating mass quarantining failed 4-2.

That set the stage for the Committee of the Whole meeting on Oct. 4, where more people spoke up, with technical questions and comments about COVID-19, quarantining, and close contacts; what is done at other schools; recommendations, not mandates, from health departments; stressed staff burning out from covering for other staff who are out due to COVOD; the difficulties of online learning; students falling behind in class when they are quarantined; students' mental health; and similar issues.

Meanwhile, the number of positive cases at the school dropped "significantly" between the two meetings, Sarah Hamilton, the school district's nurse, noted in the COVID-19 status update. That was an opposite direction from what was happening at the time of the first meeting, where numbers of students and staff excluded

from the school were higher.

The result of the COW meeting was that the board unanimously said yes to a motion to forward to the regular board meeting on Monday, Oct. 18, a change in policy to let parents decide whether they want to quarantine their children if they might have been exposed to COVID-19.

Safe at School Plan

At the first meeting, District Administrator Dave Aslyn said the district had seen a significant uptick in COVID-19 cases since the board's meeting nine days before, with student cases increasing to approximately 140% and staff cases rising by about 15%, sharpening the already difficult challenge of filling vacancies.

He said the district had received "comprehensive legal guidance" on the connection between the Safe at School Plan, directives from the Washburn County Health Department, and Wisconsin laws, "as well as a caution about actions that would rise to the level of a reckless standard."

The administrative team had two recommendations: 1) Elevate to the next level of the Safe at School Plan, which the district was at last year, with in-person classes on four days and remote learning on Wednesdays; and 2) Switch to remote learning for Oct. 6-22.

The purpose was to reduce classroom transmission of COVID-19 among students and staff, Aslyn said.

At the time of the meeting, the number of student and staff cases in the district was rising, with more cases in the first month of school than all of last year. Forty percent of the new cases in the county, since Sept. 1, was among those aged 18 and below.

School nurse Sarah Hamilton confirmed that COVID-19 is being spread in the classrooms. At the time, 17 classes had multiple cases. The district had 126 positive cases and 458 linked close contacts. She noted, too, that 44% of the positive cases in students occurred in quarantined students.

High School Principal Dennis Scherz said every decision the district makes is based on what is best for the students.

"That being said, research says that the best indicator of student's success is the classroom teacher. Period," he said.

Yet, one day, eight of 22 teachers were out, without the district having enough subs to cover the classes. Many of the available subs choose not to teach due to the current COVID-19 situation, leaving other teachers and staff to try to cover the classes in addition to their own.

Scherz proposed keeping extra-curriculars and sports going if the school went virtual for a time.

Middle School Principal Melissa Giesregen and Elementary Principal Chris Berghammer reiterated the shortage of subs and the challenge of filling ever-changing vacancies.

District Technology Coordinator Hugh Miller outlined the online technology available to the students and staff

"We've made it work in the past. We're going to continue to make it work and make it work better as we move forward in the future," he said.

Public comments

Several common threads wove through the public comments: That children need to be in school, five days a week, that they learn best that way and it is best for their mental heath; that some students do not learn well online; that masks should not be mandatory; that switching from in-person to remote is disruptive to the students and to their families.

The most prevalent thread was that healthy children should not be forced to miss school by being quarantined.

Two student athletes questioned why the board had a meeting on a night when two athletic events were scheduled, why outbreaks are not posted on the school website, why the district does not go to the next level of the plan.

Becky Emerson talked about some research by Kary Mullis, who won the Nobel Prize for his invention of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test method. She said Dr. Anthony Fauci is being told what to say and "he's trying to create fear for a purpose. It's an agenda."

She said that God has given "us a natural immunity."

Gene Bethel said he worked for the Minnesota Department of Health Services and helped design a pandemic-response program there in 2012. He commended the board for considering going to the next level of the COVID plan because the students are "vectors" and can spread it to others, especially the more vulnerable population over age 65.

Nicole Frederickson said teachers are afraid to speak up, fearing repercussions, but they believe as she does, that healthy students need to be in school and not be quarantined.

Jessica Ward said people are victims of fear and that the mortality rate of children is low.

She said most parents are sending their children to school unmasked, so requiring them is contrary.

Beth Van Trees, said: "My children and I will gladly give you as much space as you feel you need," she said. "It should be your right to take care of you the way you see fit. But it is not your right to tell me or my children to put anything over our faces."

She agreed that the health of the teachers is a priority and if a "reset" is needed, it should be done, but no mask requirements and quarantining afterward.

Another audience member said, "I'm just here just to let the board know that I and a lot of my friends and neighbors support whatever decision the school board makes in dealing with this COVID in the classroom, and what it's doing to the teachers and the students. And I would also like to say that I firmly believe in masks and vaccines. They work. Those are the only two weapons that we have against this virus."

John Hanson urged the board not to follow recommendations of the county health department, saying working with the county and the school nurse having "too much authority" are the problem, not COVID.

Board responds

Nathaniel Melton emphasized that the guidelines from the county and state health departments are "suggestions," not mandates. Meanwhile, mental health issues are "off the charts."

He proposed keeping the schools open as long as staffing is available, and shut down a building only if staffing is short, with no mass quarantining. If someone is sick, they should stay home, he stressed.

Michelle Jepson said, "I would like to understand how we got to this point when there is a requirement by the health department to quarantine all healthy kids."

She added, "The mental health that has occurred with our kids, for doing what we are doing, will outweigh COVID. Yes, they're getting sick. I understand that. But they are not being hospitalized, and they are not dying. And the mental health that is occurring to them will last way longer in their life than that COVID will."

Paul Johnson said he respected the board members' positions but the motion that was made was not on the agenda. What was on the agenda was considering moving to an elevated level on the Safe at School Plan, plus considering "recommended measures."

Marsha Scherz said: "We've been asked by administration and we've been given evidence that there was a need to go to the elevated level. I think we need to follow the plan that we've voted unanimously to have in place. If we decided to make changes to the plan, then that's a procedure that we need to go through, taking the appropriate steps."

Jepson questioned whether teachers have been asked what they want.

"I would believe most of our teachers want to be in school if they are healthy, and they want to teach our kids," she said.

Johnson said that "big government" and keeping decisions at the local level have been fought for, and now the board is making decisions about the health and welfare of the school and the entire community. He recommended following the guidance of the health care providers.

When the vote was taken, it failed on a 4-2 vote, with Jepson and Melton voting for it.

Following guidelines

SHELL LAKE– Recommendations that that the Washburn County Health Department makes are based on the Wisconsin Department of Health Services guidance, according to Washburn County Health Officer Cheri Nickell,.

Specifically, that refers to the "Guidelines for the Prevention, Investigation, and Control of COVID-19 Outbreaks in K-12 Schools in Wisconsin" toolkit which is found on DPH's COVID-19 page, dhs.wisconsin.gov/covid-19/schools.htm.

"First and foremost," Nickell said in response to a Spooner Advocate email asking about setting guidelines, "we recommend schools have a universal masking policy, because if they did, very few classroom contacts would need to be excluded (bottom of page 16 of the toolkit).

"Otherwise, the quarantine standard has not changed; if you were within 6 feet of someone with COVID for a cumulative time of 15 minutes in a day, you are considered a close contact. This means that even though you appear healthy, or got a negative test, you could still develop COVID at any point within the 14 days.

"You are infectious and capable of giving covid to others two days BEFORE you get symptoms, which answers the 'Why are you excluding healthy kids?' question," Nickell said.


Jack O' Lantern Festival is spooky fun

SPOONER– Spooner's Chamber of Commerce presents the 2021 Jack O' Lantern Festival this Saturday, Oct. 16.

From 10 a.m. to noon pumpkin carving and scarecrow making will be judged at Spooner Memorial Library. From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. there will be pumpkin painting. And from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. enjoy rides and carnival games.

Business booths and food venders open at 11 a.m., and the the Washburn County Area Humane Society's Pet Costume Contest begins at 11:30 a.m.

The Spooner Fire District & Auxiliary will present the popular Pumpkin Roll down Seigner Hill from 1 to 3 p.m.

At 5:30 p.m. the Zombie Run 5K heads for the spooky hills. Dress for the horrific run in your finest haunting costume!

From 4 to 8 p.m. relax with live music and refreshments at the Afterlife Party sponsored by Round Man Brewing Co. and The Dock Coffee.


City's voting boundaries will change

SPOONER– Spooner City Council announced voting redistricting plans for the city due to planned changes in Washburn County's Supervisory District boundaries resulting from the 2020 census.

Spooner has consisted of four wards, each represented by two alternating two-year alderperson seats for a total of eight on council with residents from each ward voting for one of their two representatives very year. City Administrator Bill Marx explained at general council's October 5 monthly meeting that for city voting, Spooner would be divided into

two aldermanic districts, each represented in city council by four alderpersons with residents from each district electing two every year.

He said that the two districts basically will be formed by combining Ward 1 and Ward 2 into one aldermanic district and Ward 3 and Ward 4 combined into the second, but also with the boundaries somewhat changed.

City Clerk/Treasurer Krista Lyons-Hartwig explained later that the wards will remain since each are represented at the county level by a county supervisor, but the small change in their boundaries will result in, for instance, Alderperson Carol Dunn – cur rently representing Ward 2, which will become District I – residing in Ward 3, which will be District II, and Alderperson John Parker from Ward 3, which will be District II, living in Ward 2 and therefore District I.

Marx as well explained that since city alderpersons stay in office until their term expires despite redistricting, the likely result would leave one alderperson seat to fill in the first district and could possibly result in three current alderpersons running for two seats in the second district in April, depending on who will run.

Lyons-Hartwig pointed out it may take a couple of years to straighten out and clarified that the county redistricting plan has to be finalized yet.

Other Business

• Council approved engineering firm SEH change order for $54,500 for an increase in construction observation during the Hwy. 63/River Street project. Marx explained the observation is for the sewer and water part of the project and includes maintaining measurements and distances, where the new lines are put in and individual services, to have a map, as well as making sure the project is according to specifications, such as maintaining the right depth and slope.

He said the first contract in 2019 was for 30 hours per week and the order is for the increase to 50 hours weekly to match the now anticipated 50 hours a week construction.

• Council approved partnering with Washburn County for the Cty. Hwy. K project scheduled for 2024. The limits of the entire project will extend from River Street to Sunset Lane with 80% of the $1.8 million total cost funded federally and 20% locally, leaving an estimated local cost of $354,236.

Marx explained that as a joint project with Washburn County, the city is only responsible for the length of the road within the city limits and beyond 24 feet in width, and with some expected sewer and water included in the project estimated the cost to the city at $77,250.

• Council approved recommendation by the Finance and the Safety and Licensing commit tees to order a police K-9 vehicle for $31,337.

• Council authorized signing of the Railroad Park parking lot near the pavilion stating that the park is open from sunrise until 11 p.m. and prohibiting ATV and snowmobile trailer parking and overnight parking.

• Council approved reconnecting three of the previous railroad yard lights at the Railroad Park by request from Friends of the Railroad Park (FORRP) to prevent vandalism. The decision was made to reconnect the existing lights on a trial basis first in lieu of purchasing and erecting new lights and poles.

• Mayor Gary Cuskey announced that the JackO-Lantern Fest will be held on October 16.

• Alderperson and Library Liason Chuck Gagnon informed that the Spooner Memorial Library will be holding a pumpkin carving contest and also a scarecrow contest on November 5.

• Council approved Cuskey's Halloween proclamation and that official trick-or-treating time will be on October 31, from 4 to 8 p.m. and that in the spirit of cooperation endorsement, residents leave their porch light on. He also urged following COVID-19 safety recommendations and precautions.

• Cuskey announced that Fall Cleanup will be on Saturday, Nov. 6, from 7 to 11 a.m. at the city shop. Tires will be accepted but no electronics. Leaves are to be left curbside.


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