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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

Milwaukee County Officials Urge Universal Masking In Schools As Districts Make Varied Decisions

Milwaukee's Pilgrim Lutheran School
Emily Files
Milwaukee's Pilgrim Lutheran School displays a mask requirement sign on the first day of the 2020-21 school year.

Milwaukee County health officials are urging local schools to require masks for all students and staff, as COVID-19 hospitalizations rise ahead of the school year.

Health officers from across Milwaukee County issued the guidance late last week, and Racine and Kenosha county health officials have since followed suit. During a Tuesday press conference, Dr. Ben Weston, director of medical services for the Milwaukee County Office of Emergency Management, reiterated the recommendation.

"Now, no one enjoys wearing a mask," Weston said. "I don’t, I’m sure that you don’t. We all had hoped just a couple months ago that we were past that. But this virus had a different course in mind, and we find ourselves back in masks in public indoor settings. It won’t be forever, but it must be for now."

With vaccination rates lagging and the more contagious delta variant circulating, Milwaukee County now has an 'extreme' COVID disease burden of 240 cases per 100,000. Weston said Wisconsin’s 14-day trend in cases and hospitalizations is fourth-worst in the country.

According to a New York Times coronavirus database, Wisconsin on Wednesday ranked fourth worst for the trend in hospitalizations at and 12th worst for the 14-day trend in cases.

Greenfield Health Department Director Darren Rausch said children are part of this trend. Out of 102 COVID hospitalizations in Milwaukee County last week, about 10% were children.

"That story is changing a little bit too because previous variants, prior to delta, were not hospitalizing kids at such an alarming rate," Rausch said.

The Milwaukee County push for masking in schools is in line with state and national guidance. Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction made the same recommendation last week. Before that, the CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics called for masking in schools.

But not all schools are following the guidance. For example, the Oak Creek-Franklin school board affirmed its mask-optional policy for the upcoming school year at a meeting Monday.

"It’s up to the parent individually what they want to do for their kids," said board member Darin Grabowski. "I can’t tell another parent what to do for their kids. That’s like me saying, ‘Go jump off that bridge’ — I can’t do that."

Districts that are requiring masks include Milwaukee Public Schools, Shorewood, Whitefish Bay and West Allis-West Milwaukee.

Rausch, the Greenfield health officer, said local health departments aren’t planning to issue masking requirements for schools. He pointed to a recent Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling that health departments can’t close schools during a pandemic.

"Obviously the Wisconsin Supreme Court decision changes the landscape and tenor and certainly hamstrings a lot of the public health efforts to issue orders," Rausch said. "It would have to be a health officer order to enact a mandate or a requirement for schools."

Rausch and other health officials are continuing to encourage adults and older children to get vaccinated as the most effective way to stop COVID spread. Children under 12 are not eligible for the vaccine, but they could be later this year.

The next question for schools may be whether to mandate vaccination for employees. On Tuesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci said vaccines should be mandatory for teachers.

Emily is WUWM's education reporter and a news editor.
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