Some Wisconsin Families Are Scrambling To Switch Schools Over Mask Policies
This school year, whether your child goes to a classroom with a mask requirement can depend entirely on where you live. The CDC recommends universal masking in schools. But some states, like Texas and Florida, are bucking that advice and trying to ban mask mandates.
Wisconsin is one of more than two dozen states where the decision is left to individual districts. That patchwork of precautions is pushing some families to flee their schools in search of those with different masking policies.
Hope and Bill Aicher live in Menomonee Falls, a suburb of Milwaukee that borders on rural, with big houses and wooded backyards. The Aichers moved here two years ago and promised their three sons they would stay. Now, they’re considering either moving or enrolling in virtual school because their school district, Hamilton, is not requiring masks.
“I’m paralyzed with the decision we have to make,” Hope Aicher says. “We don’t want to move.”
The Aichers are worried about their youngest son, 7-year-old Henry, going to a school with no mask requirement. He has a hereditary blood clotting disorder that puts him at high risk if he contracts COVID. Since he’s under 12, he can’t get vaccinated yet.
“We all were bawling last night at how sad this is — that for some reason we can’t get a fair, safe, equal education for Henry here,” says Hope Aicher.
With masking decisions left up to school districts in Wisconsin, partisan politics are playing a key role. No district in conservative Waukesha County, where Hamilton sits, is requiring masks.
Hamilton Superintendent Paul Mielke believes his district is following CDC recommendations.
“It still came across as a ‘recommend’ and we are strongly recommending [masks,]” Mielke says. “So we’re actually matching their language. If they would have said schools should mandate, we would have looked at that.”
Still, Mielke says the masking decision was one of the hardest he’s had to make. He usually favors local control. But this situation puts him in an awkward position.
“People feel very strongly both ways on this, so I think no matter what decision we would have made, we would have had some families looking at other options, educationally,” Mielke says. “That’s why we tried to come up with an in-between.”
The compromise he came up with was to put a “trigger” in place to require masks if community case numbers reach a certain level. As the more contagious delta variant circulates, the Hamilton district and most other school districts already have a high amount of COVID transmission within their boundaries.
Hope Aicher says waiting for more people to get sick before mandating masks is just wrong.
“I don’t want my child to be the one who dies in order for them to act,” she says.
In a more Democratic-leaning Milwaukee suburb about 20 miles southeast of Menomonee Falls, Jeanine Bagley finds herself on the other side of the issue. Bagley is against the mask mandate in her school district of West Allis-West Milwaukee. One of her children, who is going into second grade, struggled with wearing a mask last school year. Bagley says he has a speech disability that can hinder communication.
“My son would constantly get in trouble for pulling his mask out so that he could breathe better or so somebody could understand him,” Bagley says. “He’s lacking a little bit in speech, so it’s hard to understand him. And then you put a mask over his face? That’s not fair.”
Bagley looked into switching her children to a mask-optional Catholic school. But she says her family can’t afford the tuition.
Gigi Gronvall, an immunologist and professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, has been watching the controversy over masks in schools, including in her home state of Maryland. She says it’s problematic that these serious public health decisions are being made by states and school boards.
“I think about these places where you have high community transmission, and you have people who are actively resisting safety measures for kids,” Gronvall says. “And I think it’s really a shame that political leaders are giving in to this temporary burst of popularity they might get by siding with people who are anti-mask.”
It’s difficult to say just how many students will be switching schools over mask policies. The Department of Public Instruction has seen an increase in the number of families applying for Open Enrollment, a program that allows students to enroll in a public district outside of where they live.
During the first two weeks of August this year, there were 9,641 Open Enrollment applications, compared to 7,136 in 2019 and 6,323 in 2018 — before the pandemic upended education.
Colleen Kramer, another parent in the Hamilton district, is one of them. She was able to procure a spot for her son in first grade at Milwaukee German Immersion, an MPS school where masks are required. Kramer plans to homeschool her other two sons, who are in fifth and fourth grade, until they can get vaccinated.
She feels conflicted about her family having the option and privilege of switching schools last minute.
“It feels a bit icky that, because we are fortunate, that we can make this choice and say we need to protect our kids, and I can drive them because I’m a stay-at-home mom,” Kramer says. “I feel for the parents that don’t have that option.”
Like the Aichers, Kramer says her trust in her community and school system has been damaged by the mask decision. "It really makes you question — do I move?" Kramer says. "Do I want to stay invested in this community, when you're facing such an uphill battle in believing in science?"
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