All students and staff will be required to wear masks in Madison School District buildings and on buses regardless of their COVID-19 vaccination status at the start of the upcoming school year, according to the district’s safety plan released Thursday.
Masks will not be required during outdoor activities or while eating or drinking. The district will also maintain social distancing requirements of a minimum of 3 feet between all individuals when possible, continue scheduled cleaning of district buildings throughout the day, and promote practices of proper hand-washing, respiratory etiquette and monitoring symptoms.
“During in-person learning last spring, we followed the science, and the guidance, to ensure we kept students safe as they connected with friends, teachers and staff,” Superintendent Carlton Jenkins said. “Together, we have made great progress. Nevertheless, now is not a time for complacency. We must continue to be diligent in following the guidance of health experts and practicing safety protocols in order to provide safe, healthy in-person learning environments.”
Local teacher’s union, Madison Teachers Inc., backed the district’s plan to maintain mask requirements amid a sharp rise of cases connected to the more contagious delta variant of the coronavirus across Wisconsin.
“The multilayered mitigation strategies developed in collaboration with our union must remain in place. This includes requiring masks for students, staff and visitors inside our classrooms and workplace,” MTI president Mike Jones said, adding that maintaining the mitigation strategies are “what is best for our students and families.”
The district plans to provide safety information in the coming days on a full return to athletics and cocurricular activities in the fall.
Variants and vaccines
As of Thursday, roughly 51% of Wisconsin residents had received at least one dose of a vaccine but children younger than 12 remain ineligible to be immunized.
Gov. Tony Evers and the Wisconsin Department of Health Services on Thursday encouraged anyone over the age of 12 who will attend K-12 school as well as college or universities in the upcoming year to get vaccinated as soon as possible.
“The COVID-19 vaccines are the best protection we have against the virus and make it possible for our kids to get back to learning safely and without disruption,” Evers said in a statement.
Those who are fully vaccinated do not need to quarantine after close contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and DHS guidance, which could lessen the possibility of students having to miss out on in-person school and extracurricular activities such as sporting events after being exposed to the virus.
COVID-19 cases have increased over the past several weeks in Wisconsin after a period of regular decline. The seven-day average of new confirmed cases was 242 on Thursday, almost three times higher than the 85 daily cases just two weeks ago, according to DHS.
The increase in Wisconsin has taken place amid reports of surges in new cases from states across the country. Those new cases were most commonly attributed to the more-transmissible delta variant.
Out of 50 cases of the virus that were sequenced to determine which strain was present in Wisconsin, in June, 26% were the delta variant, with most of those cases appearing in the second half of the month.
“What we know is this variant is extremely infectious,” DHS Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk said. “It will spread more quickly among those who are not vaccinated.”
Vaccination rates have dropped around the state, but at the beginning of July between 5,000 and 10,000 people were still getting shots each day, she told the Wisconsin State Journal earlier this month.
To mask or not to mask?
The state health department will help school districts implement new guidance issued in early July from the CDC, which said vaccinated teachers and students don’t need to wear masks inside school buildings.
The DeForest, Middleton-Cross Plains, Monona Grove, Mount Horeb, Stoughton, Verona and Wisconsin Heights school districts have not yet made a decision regarding mask requirements in school buildings for the 2021-22 school year. Most of the Dane County districts that responded to requests for comment said they plan to finalize safety plans in August. Belleville administrator Nate Perry said the district will begin the school year with masks optional in classrooms but will follow Public Health Madison and Dane County guidelines should they change. The Waunakee Community School District will also make masking optional for students at the start of the year. District administration is exploring the possibility of providing mandatory masking in some classrooms for students under 12, spokesperson Anne Blackburn said.
The CDC guidance mostly applies to middle schools and high schools, as younger children are not yet approved to receive the vaccine. If a COVID-19 outbreak occurs in a school, Willems Van Dijk said students and staff will be asked to wear masks again.
“Masks are something that I think will come and go with us as we move forward,” she said.
State Journal reporter Mitchell Schmidt contributed to this report.