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By LeAnn R. Ralph
COLFAX — The Colfax Board of Education has approved the Back-to-School plan with masks optional for the 2021-2022 school year.
The school board approved making masks optional in June after the students and staff were finished for the school year, said William C. Yingst Jr., district administrator, at the Colfax Board of Education’s August 16 meeting.
The policy will remain masks optional until the school board changes the policy, he said.
School districts would find it helpful if the governor or the public health director or the federal government would use the word “mandate” instead of issuing “guidance and recommendations,” Yingst said.
School boards are put in the position of having to make a decision using only guidance, he said, pointing out that with the Back-to-School plan that was in place for the 2020-2021 school year, when masks were required to prevent or slow the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, school in Colfax was open “every single day.”
The goal remains the same: safety of students and staff is the number one focus and priority, Yingst said.
The goal is to keep school open throughout the year and to keep everyone as safe as possible, he said.
The Back-to-School plan is similar to last year’s plan. Cleaning and sanitizing will remain the same, and spacing and physical distancing will be implemented, Yingst said.
The school district sent out a survey to parents with eight questions and a deadline date of August 10, Yingst said.
A return rate for surveys of 13 percent is considered accurate for gathering statistics, and the return rate for the Colfax schools survey was 27 percent, so it was well above what is needed for statistically significant survey results, he said.
To the question if masks were optional, would you send your child/children to school, 95 percent said “yes” and five percent said “no,” Yingst said.
To the question if masks were required, would you send your child/children to school, 68 percent said “yes” and 30 percent said “no,” he said.
After the survey had closed, Yingst said the school district received information that people had figured out they could go back in and answer the survey questions over and over again.
The school district is still working on verifying whether the survey results were skewed because the same people answered the survey questions multiple times, he said.
In the future, a family will only have access to the survey one time to answer questions, Yingst said.
Usually for on-line surveys, access to the survey is allowed one time from an Internet Provider (IP) address, so that if someone attempts to access the survey again from the same IP address, access will be blocked.
Masks will be required on the school buses, Yingst said.
Every school districted in the country is mandated by the federal government to have everyone on the bus wearing a mask, he said.
The federal government has a mandate in place for all mass transit, which includes buses, airplanes and trains.
According to recent news articles, the Transportation Security Administration announced on the day after the school board meeting that the federal mandate for airlines, buses and trains would be extended into next year and will require masks until January 18, 2022.
Updated information about the Back-to-School plan will be included on the Colfax school district’s website, Yingst said.
The principals — Trevor Hovde, Colfax elementary principal, and John Dachel, Colfax middle school and high school principal — will send out updated information to parents as well, he said.
The school district now has a full-time school nurse and a health aide, Yingst noted.
Jaci Ackerlund, school board member, asked if sports and clubs would be returning to 2019 levels of “normal.”
“For now,” Yingst said, adding that the school district is following the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association’s (WIAA) recommendations.
Fall sports are played outdoors, and “that’s easier to manage,” he said.
Ken Neuburg, school board member, commended the school district for surveying the parents.
The school board reviewed the Back-to-School plan last August, and every meeting since last August, the school board has reviewed the plan, he said.
In rolling out the Back-to-School plan last year, the school district received very little input. Reviewing the plan each and every month was warranted, Neuburg said, noting that at the August meeting last year when the school board approved the Back-to-School plan, there were three people/families who attended the meeting.
About 50 people attended the August 16 meeting of the Colfax Board of Education.
Ten of those people at the meeting did not live in the school district, according to the sign-up attendance sheets.
The school board looked at safety and the Back-to-School plan throughout the school year and voted on it each and every month, Neuburg said.
The school board must continue to review the plan every month — not just for the August 16 meeting, but every month, he said.
Every day during the school year, the Colfax school district has 850 people in the building, of which about 750 are students and 100 are staff, Yingst said.
There are not very many businesses in the Chippewa Valley that have 850 people in the same building every day, he said.
The school district must manage the safety of 850 people in close proximity “all day long, every day,” Yingst said.
This year’s plan is not much different than the Back-to-School plan used last year, other than
masks are optional, said Todd Kragness, president of the Board of Education.
The plan will be adjusted throughout the school year, as needed, although the school board is hoping that no adjustments will be needed this year, he said.
The school board will make adjustments, though, as necessary, Kragness noted.
When the schools were shut down statewide in March of 2020, Ken Bjork, school board member, said he had found himself in the position of trying to homeschool four grandchildren every day.
As he has at previous meetings, Bjork expressed the opinion that he simply is not cut out for homeschooling small grandchildren.
“What do we have to do so I do not have to homeschool four grandchildren?” he asked.
The school board will have to deal with information as it changes. When fighting forest fires, firefighters have to watch how the wind is blowing. The school board will have to make adjustments as the information changes locally and nationally, Bjork said.
The Colfax Board of Education unanimously approved the Back-to-School plan.
During the public comments portion of the meeting, which was held prior to the school board voting on the Back-to-School plan, seven people had signed up to speak.
Nancy Odom Mouledoux of Colfax said she was praying for the school board members because their jobs are not getting any easier.
The truth is not arbitrary, and the people working with children must be sure to give the truth to children, she said.
Mouledoux noted that her father had a saying about things “up with which I cannot put.”
As time goes on, each school board member will come to a point where he or she has decided there is something “up with which I cannot put,” she said.
In the meantime, Mouledoux said she would continue to pray for the school board when they are making decisions.
Kelly Hayes of Wheeler quoted the Declaration of Independence and noted that the document was in response to fighting off a tyrannical government.
The school district usurped the authority of parents by requiring masks for a virus that is less dangerous to children than an influenza virus, she said.
All citizens have inalienable rights, Hayes said.
“The school board should educate children and not medicate them,” she said.
Rich Jenson of Colfax spoke about the school board’s policy to limit public comment to three minutes per speaker with a total of 20 minutes for public comments.
Although the school board’s policy is to limit total public comment to 20 minutes, at the May meeting when a number of people spoke against requiring masks to be worn in school for the rest of the school year, public comments went on for an hour. Everyone who wished to make a public comment received an opportunity to speak.
Public comments at the August 16 meeting lasted for 30 minutes. Again, everyone who wished to make a public comment received an opportunity to speak.
After a governing body allows public comments, the governing body cannot be discriminatory, cannot pick and choose which opinions should be heard, and a 20 minute limit on comments is discriminatory, Jenson said.
If 15 people want to speak, and the school board limits public comments to 20 minutes, only seven people will be able to speak, and the school board will be discriminating against the other eight people, he said.
The school staff is accountable to the administration, and the administration is accountable to the school board, and the school board is accountable to the taxpayers, Jenson said.
Jenson said he realized school board members worked an eight or 10 hour day before coming to the school board meeting, but members of the audience also worked eight or 10 hours.
The school board should listen to more public comments and not less because it is important to the public and the taxpayers, he said.
When people are elected to the school board, they should expect to be held accountable, Jenson said.
Setting a limit of three minutes for public comments is following what other school boards do to fit an agenda for the school board members, he said.
Three minutes is restrictive to the taxpayers, Jenson said.
To be commended
Paul Wittrock of Colfax said he had forgotten that people want to take shots at the school board and also noted that the majority rules.
Wittrock commended the school board and the administration “for the great job over the last year.”
Colfax is one of the few school districts that did not have to shut down during the school year because of COVID outbreaks, and that was because of the policies and the hard work of students, staff and administration, he said.
“I commend you for your hard work,” Wittrock said.
Kathy Dunbar of Colfax said she was surprised there were not more people in attendance at the school district’s annual meeting prior to the school board meeting.
Dunbar also commended the school board for the work they are doing.
If someone has an axe to grind with the school board, then he or she should run for the school board. The school board members “are doing the best they can,” she said.
Dunbar said she knows what it is like to serve on a board because she has served as a trustee on the Colfax Village Board.
All board members put in quite a bit of work outside of the board meetings, she said.
Denise Solberg said she objected to the “obnoxious quarantines” ordered by the Dunn County Health Department.
The school district’s focus should be on education, and the health department should do the contact tracing, she said.
Student to student transmission of COVID-19 is low, and “quarantine is pointless,” Solberg said, adding “COVID drama has been exaggerated by the health department.”
Carl Rudi of Colfax said that it is a common practice of boards to limit public comment to three minutes per person and that the Colfax school board was not setting a policy just to limit people in Colfax.
School board members and administrators receive public comments every time they go out in public, he said.
Carl Rudi taught middle school math at Colfax for 28 years and retired at the end of the school year in 2020. His wife, Polly, is pupil services and special education director in the Colfax schools.
They do not ever get away from public comments — “it happens all the time,” Rudi said.
The number one priority of teachers and administrators is to care about the safety of students, whether it is ALICE training (for active shooters in the school building) or peanut allergies, their focus is on protecting kids, he said.
Rudi said he appreciated all that the administration and the school board do because “it’s a thankless job.”
In other business, the Colfax Board of Education:
• Accepted the resignation of Heather Niesen, early childhood teacher. Niesen has taught at Colfax Elementary for the past three years.
• Approved Indianhead Insurance, at a cost of $120,045.99, as the insurance carrier for the 2021-2022 school year. The previous insurance carrier, Arthur J. Gallagher, would have cost $156,787.
• Approved adding the Class of 2025 to the student activity account.
• Approved a list of policies with statutory and technical updates along with one new policy, “Conduct in Virtual Classrooms.”
Following a closed session, the Board of Education:
• Approved hiring Carragh Knudsen as special education teacher for kindergarten through third grade.
• Approved a transfer for Janice Cox from special education teacher for kindergarten through third grade to special education early childhood teacher.
• Approved hiring Kari Anderson as a cook.
• Approved hiring Candy Pahl as a bus driver.
• Approved hiring Heather McDonald as a bus driver.
• Approved hiring Linda Bilodeau as the freshmen volleyball coach.