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2 Wisconsin Towns Wrestle With Schools' Mask Policies

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, this fall, some kids are returning to schools that will require masks to protect against coronavirus. Other kids are returning to schools that do not require masks at all. Both policies are prompting some families to flee their schools.

Here's Emily Files of our member station WUWM.

EMILY FILES, HOST:

Hope and Bill Aicher are sitting on their back deck at their house in Menomonee Falls. It's a suburb of Milwaukee that borders on rural, with big houses and wooded backyards. The Aichers moved here two years ago, hoping to settle for good. Now Hope Aicher says they feel like they have to move because their school district, Hamilton, is not requiring masks.

HOPE AICHER: I'm paralyzed with what to do. I'm paralyzed with the decision I have to make.

FILES: The Aichers' youngest son, Henry, has a blood-clotting disorder that puts him at high risk if he contracts COVID. He's under 12, so he can't get vaccinated yet.

AICHER: And 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.

FILES: 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 for now is left to individual districts. The partisan politics involved play a key role. For instance, no district in conservative Waukesha County, where Hamilton sits, is requiring masks.

Hamilton Superintendent Paul Mielke usually favors local control. But this situation puts him in an awkward position.

PAUL MIELKE: 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 to - potentially at other options educationally for it. So I think that's why we tried to come up with a - kind of like an in between.

FILES: The compromise he came up with was to put a trigger in place to require masks if community case numbers reach a certain level. But Hope Aicher says, waiting for more people to get sick before mandating masks is just wrong.

AICHER: I don't want my child to be the one who dies in order for them to act.

FILES: 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 Dallas. She says her second grader has a speech disability that can hinder communication.

JEANINE BAGLEY: He's lacking a little bit in speech. And so it is hard to understand him. And then you put a mask over his face. You know, that's not fair.

FILES: Bagley looked into switching her son to Catholic school but can't afford the tuition.

Gigi Gronvall, an immunologist and professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health, says, it's problematic that these serious public health decisions are being made by states and school boards.

GIGI GRONVALL: I think about these places where you have high community transmission and you have people actively resisting safety measures for kids. And I think it's really a shame that political leaders are giving in to this sort of temporary burst of popularity that they might get by siding with people who are anti-mask.

FILES: It's difficult to say just how many students will be switching schools over mask policies. But Wisconsin education officials say they've seen an increase in applications from families who want to enroll somewhere else.

That includes Colleen Kramer, another parent in the Hamilton district. She's enrolling her children in Milwaukee Public Schools, where masks are required. Kramer feels conflicted about her family having the option and privilege of switching schools last minute.

COLLEEN KRAMER: It feels a bit icky that because we are fortunate, 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. And I feel for the parents that don't have that option.

FILES: Like others, Kramer says, parents shouldn't need to make such extraordinary decisions in trying to keep their kids safe in school.

For NPR News, I'm Emily Files in Menomonee Falls.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOLLOWED BY GHOSTS' "CLEAR BLUE SKY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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