Kenosha County school says masks are 'optional'; health officer concerned about community spread

NOW: Kenosha County school says masks are ’optional’; health officer concerned about community spread

PARIS, Wis. (CBS 58) -- Parents in the town of Paris are raising concerns over their school district's decision not to require face masks.

CBS 58 obtained an email from Roger Gahart, district administrator for Paris Consolidated School, in which he said "wearing of face masks is optional for students, staff, and guests in our building for special events."

In the email sent Monday, Gahart said the Paris J-1 School District does not have a face mask policy, and now that the Wisconsin Supreme Court has overturned the statewide mask mandate, families can decide whether they want to wear face masks.

"I'm very concerned, and I want to ensure that we still put out the best recommendation that masks are mandatory as much as we can," said Jen Freiheit, director/health officer for the Kenosha County Division of Health.

Freiheit said she started receiving calls from concerned parents after the email was sent out. She said she is worried not requiring masks will create a "spiderweb effect" of community spread of COVID-19.

"Children can be those asymptomatic carriers of COVID, in which case they can spread it to their families. We know that the variants are even more infectious, so it can spread quite rapidly. So (they can) carry that through to their parents, their grandparents, and then those parents carry it to work," Freiheit said.

Gahart's email also said the bus company the school uses requires all bus riders wear face masks, so children who ride the bus must continue to wear masks.

A parent, who asked to stay anonymous for fear of retaliation, told CBS 58 families got less than 24 hours notice that masks would no longer be required. The parent said in a statement they are concerned with the direction the school is taking.

"While we understand the Wisconsin Supreme Court has overturned the statewide mask mandate, our school has had success with their protocol which included wearing masks. We would like the school to reconsider reinstating the masking protocol through the end of the year, as recommended by the CDC and local health department guidelines," the parent said.

The city of Kenosha does have a mask order, but Kenosha County does not, so Freiheit said her hands are tied.

"It technically does rest on the schools. Each school can make their own decision," she said.

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services and Department of Public Instruction created COVID-19 mitigation guidance for schools. It says: "On March 31, 2021 the Wisconsin State Supreme Court overturned Wisconsin’s public health emergency, which also ended the statewide mask order. The DHS continues to recommend the wearing of face masks."

The state guidance also says prevention strategies from the CDC to reduce transmission of COVID-19 in schools are based on "universal and correct use of masks."

CBS 58 asked Gahart for an interview. He sent CBS 58 a statement saying:

"The Paris J1 School District does not have a face mask policy. With no statewide mask mandate in place, this means that the wearing of face masks is optional for students, staff, and guests in our building for special events.
Our district has never had a policy regarding the wearing of face masks. When the statewide mask mandate was in place, we asked our students, staff, and guests in the building to comply with that mandate and essentially, everyone did. Following the Wisconsin State Supreme Court ruling which ended the statewide mask mandate, I clarified to families and staff that our district is simply leaving the choice of wearing face masks or not wearing face masks up to the people. We absolutely respect and support the choices of all with regard to wearing or not wearing face masks."
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