Saturday, November 26th, 2022
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MADISON — Frustrated parents are mulling a recall drive against members of the Waterloo School Board after the district’s administrator unilaterally imposed a mask mandate and then left town on a 10-day vacation.

Students who don’t follow the new mandate, in effect since Tuesday, are being suspended and threatened with other reprisals, parents tell Wisconsin Spotlight.

Kristi Carnahan, whose children attend Waterloo schools, said parents have asked the Waterloo School Board to call an emergency meeting to take up rescinding the order, but Board President Nancy Thompson refuses to do so.

“What’s more puzzling about this is, at least at the beginning of the year, our school administrator (Brian Henning) was anti-mask,” Carnahan said. “I don’t know if he’s getting pressure from other parents or what.”

They don’t know because Henning sent a district-wide email out late last Thursday announcing the mask mandate would go into effect on Tuesday morning, and then split. ” He’s out of contact, and parents say they’re not getting straight answers from the school board and administration.

“As of this time, no emergency  board meeting has been scheduled. The answers you and other parents are requesting can only be provided by Mr. Henning,” Thompson wrote to a parent who told the board president that she does not get to “Coparent my child or the children of anyone else in this district!”

Parents said they were told by district officials that the mandate came from the Jefferson County Health Department, but officials there said they only strongly recommend face coverings in school.

“No, JCHD did not mandate masks for Waterloo School District,” Samroz Jakvani, an epidemiologist and public information officer for the health department wrote to a parent in an email obtained by Wisconsin Spotlight. “Given that no mandate was issued (from the health department), I cannot provide an answer to your question regarding my authority to mandate masks within schools.”

Crime and punishment

The mask mandate is a reversal from the mask-optional policy the district had in place from the beginning of the school year. School districts across the state have been ratcheting up restrictions as COVID-19 cases rise.

Jefferson County’s seven-day rolling average of virus infections was 27 new COVID-19 cases (per 100,000), the same as the 14-day rolling average, according to the health department’s latest data. There were a total of 383 new cases over the 14-day period. It’s less than half of the peak number of cases reached in January.

Samantha Shelton pulled her 7th-grade daughter out of school to keep her from being suspended. When she emailed administrators expressing her concern about the policy and that her daughter would not be wearing a mask, she was told her child would face the consequences.

“The COVID policy adopted by the school board states that any student who refuses to wear a mask after being instructed to do so will be suspended. I am hoping that (your daughter) will comply with directives from her teachers or I will need to follow through with the COVID plan and suspend her. Thank you.,” wrote Christine Ziemann, principal of Waterloo Intermediate and Middle School.

It’s not clear how many students have been suspended so far. Shawn Bartelt, principal of the high school, did not return a call seeking comment.

Shelton said she has heard as many as 10 students had faced discipline, and at least two are on three-day suspension for refusing to wear masks. The penalty escalates for each day of resistance.

“These are suspensions in high school. They’re not able to play sports, they are being threatened by administrators that they won’t play for the rest of the season. There are a lot of dirty tactics used against children by the administration and it’s just wrong,” Shelton said.

Meanwhile, students continue to eat lunch “shoulder to shoulder” — without masks — in crowded lunch rooms, Carnahan said.

Worse, parents say they are getting nowhere with their complaints.

Who’s in charge?

Thompson, the school board president, agreed there remain a “lot of unanswered questions.” She said she found out about the mandate at the same time parents did — through the email.

“I did not know at that point he (Henning) was going to be on vacation the next day. I found out at a funeral I was working at,” Thompson said. “We have to wait for him. He’s the one who sent it out, he’s the one who made the decisions. He’s been out where he could not be contacted, so the answers did not come.”

Board Vice President Kate Lewandowski said only the president can comment under board policy.

Board member Charles Craves commented. He said the district’s annual meeting is Monday and he expects to hear from the district administrator at that time about the reasons the mask mandate was put in place.

“The science is all over the place on this, in my opinion. It’s very unfortunate,” Craves said, adding that he would support the mask mandate if it’s merited.

Lewandowski clearly represents the pro-mask wing, according to a prickly email she sent to a parent.

“(W)e are a representative democracy. I represent people in the Waterloo School District that share the same beliefs as me,” she wrote. “They have a right to that representation on our school board. As an elected official, I have the right to voice our thoughts and opinions during school board meetings when those topics are on our agenda.”

Thompson said she can’t comment on Henning’s unilateral decision or whether she supports it. The school board president also said she is prohibited under board law to put anything but annual business on Monday’s agenda. Parents may be able to bring up their concerns during the comment period at the end of the meeting, the board president said.

Shelton said a lot of parents will be at the meeting looking for answers. Regardless, they’re ready to take action.

“We’re going to submit recall papers for two members on our board,” she said. “We are not going to comply” with the mask mandate.

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