When Shannon Jensen and Gina Kildahl sent their children back to their Wisconsin schools during the last school year, everyone had to wear masks. But when school resumed this fall, that was not the case — even as health experts warned that masks were necessary to keep a new highly contagious coronavirus variant from sweeping through classrooms.
Jensen and Kildahl both sent their sons to their elementary schools in masks anyway. Jensen’s son attends Rose Glen Elementary School in Waukesha, outside Milwaukee. Kildahl’s son goes to school about 200 miles away at Fall Creek Elementary, between Green Bay and Minneapolis.
Just weeks into the new school year, both boys tested positive for the coronavirus. Lawsuits filed this month in two Wisconsin federal courts blame what they describe as the schools’ lax policies on masks, quarantining and contact tracing.
Both the boards of education for the School District of Waukesha and the School District of Fall Creek had voted to end many of the coronavirus mitigation policies that had been in place last year, according to the two lawsuits. That included getting rid of universal mask requirements.
The moves defied strategies recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, the lawsuits add. Jensen’s lawsuit was filed in a federal court in eastern Wisconsin on Oct. 6. Kildahl’s lawsuit was filed on Monday in Wisconsin’s western district court.
Because classes were held without adequate safety measures, Jensen’s lawsuit alleges, coronavirus cases spread within the district’s schools. The school district and its board are “knowingly, needlessly, unreasonably, and recklessly exposing the public to Covid-19 … endangering public health,” her lawsuit adds.
Both lawsuits were funded by the Minocqua Brewing Company super PAC, based in northern Wisconsin. The committee is led by Kirk Bangstad, who ran for the Wisconsin State Assembly last year as a Democrat against Rob Swearingen, the Republican incumbent. Bangstad, who was forced to shut down his brewpub during the coronavirus pandemic, has been critical of his state’s handling of the health crisis.
He said he has been disheartened to see Wisconsin school board meetings flooded with anti-mask protesters, whom he called “a very loud and obnoxious minority.” When he asked on his podcast and brewery’s Facebook page whether parents were concerned that dropping safety policies would harm their children, Bangstad said he received hundreds of responses.
“We’re hoping to do a class-action suit against all school boards in Wisconsin that aren’t providing the CDC-recommended mitigations for students,” he told The Washington Post on Monday night. The goal, Bangstad added, is to hold “to account these school boards who are anti-science and anti-mask.”
Officials representing both schools declined to comment on the lawsuits. Attorney Frederick Melms, who is representing Jensen and Kildahl, told The Post it is dangerous when schools allow students to opt out of wearing masks.
“We’re hoping to get a judge that [will] make them do the right thing,” Melms said. “It’s unfortunate that it came to this.”
Whether children should be required to wear masks in schools has become a flash point across the United States as the global pandemic nears its third year. Many schools halted in-person learning at the start of the pandemic, but health officials said it was important to get students back into classrooms this year — with the right protections in place.
CDC officials said last month that pediatric coronavirus cases and school outbreaks were lower in places where masks were required in the classroom. But the issue continues to divide communities, including in Wisconsin, where school board meetings have turned volatile as members debate whether children should have to wear face coverings. Children younger than 12 are not yet eligible to receive the coronavirus vaccines, which have been proved to protect people from covid-related hospitalizations and deaths.
Jensen and Kildahl both say in their lawsuits that unmasked students exposed their sons to the coronavirus. Jensen’s son tested positive on Sept. 19 — less than three weeks into the new school year. Kildahl’s son tested positive on Sept. 27, less than four weeks after school started.
Both children missed several days of school after testing positive for the virus.
Jensen also alleges in her lawsuit that she was notified a day after her son tested positive that another student in his class had covid-19. Even though he had been exposed, school officials said at the time that quarantining was optional.
“Your child may continue to attend school and participate in extracurricular activities,” a Sept. 20 notification from the school stated.
Within days, Jensen said she learned that four children in her son’s class had the virus.
“It appeared there was an outbreak in the classroom and a substantial delay in notifications going out to the parents,” the lawsuit says. “There was no actual contact tracing being done in the school, just blanket informing parents when a child in the class had tested positive, usually several days after.”
Those failures, her lawsuit alleges, “needlessly and recklessly placed Wisconsin school children and their communities at risk of serious illness and death.” Without knowing her son might have covid, the lawsuit adds, Jensen let him attend a Cub Scout camp, church, a festival, community parade and car show, “potentially exposing hundreds of local citizens.”
Jensen and Kildahl’s attorney said his clients launched this effort not just to make their own districts safer, but also those across their state.
“These school districts just have decided to bury their head in the sand without any real sort of rationale behind it,” Melms said. “They just are ignoring the guidance from the health department, from the CDC, from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. It’s really reckless.”