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JANESVILLE

Janesville School Board members took their masks off Tuesday after voting to lift the district’s mask mandate, while mask-choice advocates watching from outside the board room cheered.

“Breathe that fresh air!” a man yelled.

Effective immediately, students and staff are no longer required to wear masks in school, although they may still wear them if they choose to.

The board voted 7-2 for the change after a sometimes emotional meeting.

The district’s previous order called for masks through the end of July, which would have meant masks for staff and some 3,300 students during summer school, in the hottest time of the year with few air-conditioned classrooms.

Masks are no longer required, but they are not banned, officials said.

Masks could return sometime in the future, depending on the status of COVID-19 infections, officials indicated.

“I guarantee we will keep our fingers on the pulse of this issue, and if we have to go back, we have to go back,” Board Chairwoman Cathy Myers said.

“Let these kids breathe freely, the way God intended for them,” said Amie Hughes, 2441 Greenwood Drive, who was one of six district residents who urged the board to lift the mask mandate.

Board members said they received more than 50 emails or letters on the topic addressing both sides of the issue.

“These are CHILDREN!!! Not test dummies!!!” wrote one person identified in his email as Seth Nickel. “The impact of the virus on these children will never outweigh the impact of mental harm/irrational fear put on these poor kids throughout this past year. It needs to end right now! I am paying close attention to the board members who are wanting our children to live normal lives, opposed to the ones who do not and want them to be muzzled over their own neurotic fears.”

“The teachers and school board are there for the kids, not the other way around,” Hughes said in an email. “Why are five people deciding what the whole School District of Janesville has to wear on their faces?”

“I’m very concerned this will cause an increase in COVID infections in children and the community,” Amber Pullara wrote. “… I understand that many parents are tired of wearing masks, washing masks and making sure their child has a mask, however we are so close to getting a vaccine for our youngest learners, it seems silly to throw it all away now.”

The administration did not take a position.

“There’s really not a right or wrong answer to any of this,” Superintendent Steve Pophal said. “It is about risk tolerance, and different people have different risk tolerance.”

The county public health department said Thursday businesses could go maskless, but “all unvaccinated individuals should continue to wear masks and practice social distancing ... (and) some privately owned businesses and certain industry sectors, including health care systems/medical facilities, schools, and public transportation, have ongoing mask requirements to protect the health and safety of their visitors, and everyone is encouraged to please follow these requests.”

School board member Elizabeth Paull expressed frustration with the health department, which she said didn’t give clear guidance.

“Where is the support we were given back in August and September to make these choices for our children and our family and our staff? They’re frankly not here,” Paull said.

Board member Michelle Haworth said many other districts lifted their mandates in mid-May with no problems, and she said she worries about how kids are learning to read without the cues they might gain from facial expressions.

Other parents expressed concerns about masks trapping germs that could infect their children.

Board member Greg Ardrey said he loved the high level of community interest in the issue but not the tone of some commenters.

“We take our time, and we evaluate every issue fully, and the level of condescension that has been shared, it quite frankly pisses me off. I understand people being emotional about mask wearing. So am I. But there’s no way that I’ve sat here and not looked into the details fully,” Ardrey said

Ardrey said he would like to hear more from the community on other important school issues, such as spending, curriculum and maintenance.

The two “no” votes came from Karl Dommershausen and John Hanewall, both of whom have health problems in their families that cause them to continue wearing masks in public.

Dommershausen said his daughter had to shut down her day care center in Sun Prairie after a child was dropped off sick, and later testing showed she passed the virus on to other parents and staff.

“My concern is it’s too great a cost right now if we drop the masks, even if we lose one child or one significant hospitalization,” Hanewall said.

Hanewall agreed with speakers who said more than 99% of children recover from COVID-19, and many children are not masking in other activities outside of school, but “I’m concerned that society in general is becoming too lax because we’ve become so tired of having to wear (masks).”

Kevin Murray said he recently observed hundreds of small children and relatives at the first day of T-ball at the Janesville Youth Sports Complex, none of them distancing or wearing masks.

“We may be getting a little more relaxed, and I think that’s a good thing. … We’re tracking in the right direction. To me, that’s what it means.” Murray said.

In other business, the board approved the appointment of Kurt Krueger as the new Franklin Middle School principal.

Krueger, who started with the district in 1994, has been principal of Jefferson Elementary School since 2009.

Krueger’s contract calls for a salary of $118,000, beginning July 1.

Other applicants who were considered for the job were Principal Ben Simmons of Clinton Elementary School, Assistant principal Ben Holzem of Whitewater Middle School, Principal Robert “Carl” Becker of Waupaca High School and Thomas Dorgan, talent manager for the Whitnall School District.

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