MADISON — Waterloo Superintendent Brian Henning says the school board’s president lied about being unaware of a controversial mask mandate, and it sounds like he was pushed by the local health department to issue the edict before he left town on an extended vacation.
Apparently caving in to public pressure, the school board is planning an emergency meeting for Wednesday evening to take up the mask mandate. Frustrated parents still planned to be at the district’s annual meeting Monday night, even though they were told the issue would not be on the agenda.
As Wisconsin Spotlight reported, Henning sent a district-wide email out late Thursday, Sept. 16, announcing the mask mandate would go into effect on Tuesday, Sept. 21. And then he checked out for a 10-day hunting trip in the wilds of Alaska.
Parents opposed to the mask mandate tried in vain to get answers from administrators and the school board. They grew increasingly frustrated when students who refused to wear masks on school grounds were suspended. Parents were told they’d have to wait until Henning got back.
“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,” Board President Nancy Thompson wrote to a parent soon after the mask edict was issued.
Thompson told Wisconsin Spotlight that she learned of the mask 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.”
Not so, Henning said in an interview on his return to work Monday.
“I guess I will answer that question truthfully, and that is the school board president lied to you,” the superintendent said. “I informed her Tuesday morning (two days before the email went out) that we were being told to implement the mask mandate.”
He also said Shawn Bartelt, principal of the high school, serves as the acting administrator in the superintendent’s absence. He said Bartelt and the board president could have provided some answers.
It seemed everyone passed the buck.
Henning also said the school board president, contrary to her statements to Wisconsin Spotlight, could have called an emergency meeting while he was gone.
Parents suspected Henning was threatened by the Jefferson County Health Department to issue the mask mandate. He said he wouldn’t use the word threatened.
In an email to a parent, Samroz Jakvani, an epidemiologist and public information officer for the health department, wrote that “JCHD did not mandate masks for Waterloo School District.” Health officials have said they strongly recommended masks.
But Henning said it was more like a directive. It all comes down to semantics.
“(Jakvani) did not say anything threatening. He did say (the health department) had never had to use statutory authority to step in yet, but it was being considered,” the superintendent said. He added that he felt strongly enough about the directive that he thought he needed to take action that could not wait until the next school board meeting.
The mask mandate is a reversal of 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.
Henning, who said he’s not a “pro-mask person,” said the had the board could have voted to rescind his emergency mandate at any time.
It appears the board may do that on Wednesday evening. Henning said six out of seven school board members have agreed to hold the special board meeting to discuss the mask mandate, which is set to expire on Oct. 12.
“In general, I’m as eager as anyone else to bring resolution to this and move forward,” the superintendent said. He added that whether the mask mandate is rescinded Wednesday or it expires on the 12th, it is not likely to be extended.
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 be suspended if she didn’t follow the mandate.
She and other parents wondered if the mandate was just a quick way to appease mask proponents in the community.
Shelton and others are now planning a recall campaign against Thompson and Board Vice President Kate Lewandowski, a staunch mask mandate supporter.
“I think to be on the school board in a fairly conservative area you have to have a backbone,” she said. “I don’t feel these people have a backbone.”