Mask debate extends to school athletics

New policies could affect all Shawano public school students, staff
Lee Pulaski
City Editor

What was listed as an update on buildings and grounds in the Shawano School District on Monday turned into a heated discussion on whether high school athletes can be required to wear masks in a world where coronavirus is still considered a threat.

Shawano Community High School spring sports teams were allowed to return to practices this week after their seasons were cancelled due to schools, parks and most other facilities being shut down by Gov. Tony Evers through measures like the Safer at Home order. However, new rules have been put in place, according to athletic director Joel Wondra, including one that would have athletes wearing masks during practice except for when aerobic activity is taking place, due to Shawano County presently being designated as moderate risk by the state.

The new policy would also have athletes wear masks at school for a minimum of 14 days after attending a mass crowd activity or visiting a hotspot where coronavirus cases have had a sharp uptick.

Wondra told the Shawano School Board that he considers the new rules to be a “healthy balance” that allows student athletes to get back out onto fields to practice their skills.

“All of this is consistent with what was put forth by the WIAA (Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association) in terms of the limitations we should observe,” said Wondra, noting later that guidelines from local health officials, the Centers for Disease Control and the American Pediatrics Association were also interwoven into the new policies.

The mask requirement did not sit well with board member Mart Grams, who called social distancing “crap” and bluntly asked Wondra who said the school district was required to implement the new guidelines.

“All you’re doing is placing more fear on those children,” Grams said, adding that closing schools have harmed students and their families enough. “Let them play. They’ve already signed a waiver.”

Wondra, who wore a mask at the meeting, pointed out that there was no “requirement” for any of the guidelines to be implemented, nor was there a requirement that the district resume sporting activities for SCHS. He noted that it wasn’t the “Joel Wondra plan” and that he’d worked with Superintendent Randi Anderson and other district officials to come up with the guidelines.

“Unless this body (the board) were to say differently or that we’re going to do something different, then I’m not going to overturn the work of our group,” Wondra said.

Board member Michael Sleeper felt the new policies were necessary to prevent further spread of the coronavirus, which had 87 confirmed positive cases in the county at the time the board was meeting. He noted that he had been keeping track of the data and studies coming out regarding the virus and felt the district’s guidelines would minimize the spread.

Sleeper added that all anyone had to do was look at states like Florida, Texas, Arizona and California — all reporting record daily cases — to realize that Wisconsin needs to take steps to avoid becoming a new hotspot for the coronavirus.

“We’ve been really fortunate so far, knock on wood, but I do not want us, as a community, to play Russian roulette,” Sleeper said. “We need to get schools open, and we need to get athletics going, but we must use every precaution within our means.”

The guidelines are expected to extend beyond the summer practice days allowed by the WIAA and would likely impact all students — athletes or not — when school opens again in September. Anderson pointed to the upcoming Shawano County Fair as an example, noting that the event brings visitors from out of town daily during the six-day run.

“I have to go back to my students, to my staff that are working in this building … and figure out how to best mitigate that risk,” Anderson said. “Based on the guidelines, we’ve said anybody who attends the fair, we recommend that you wear a mask. If you choose not to wear a mask, we will have to figure out what those consequences are.”

Anderson said that the policy would require anyone attending the fair or other large group events to wear a mask at school for a minimum of 14 days. She also stressed that the safety of the community is paramount in any plans the district comes up with.

The policies extending to all students are expected to be part of the district’s reopening plan, which is expected to be sent to the board for approval in August.

Grams said he would not vote for a plan unless he can see what the punishment will be for students and staff that don’t abide by social distancing or mask policies.

“I don’t want us to be thinking that our community is a bunch of redneck hillbillies who don’t know nothin’,” Grams said.