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More local schools requiring masks as case rates climb

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Viterbo University has joined Western Technical College in requiring face coverings at the start of the semester as local COVID-19 cases increase, while Aquinas Catholic schools are now asking for masking of those below seventh grade and La Crosse public schools are mandating such for all students.

College during COVID (copy)

Face mask wearing students walk to and from classes last year on the UW-La Crosse campus.

Western began mandating the wearing of masks when inside campus buildings Aug. 9, and Viterbo’s policy will be effective starting Monday. UW-La Crosse is strongly urging masking of all staff and students inside its facilities.

Aquinas Catholic Schools have revised their masking policy for younger students, requiring students in 3K through sixth grades to wear face coverings, and those in seventh through 12th grades are “highly encouraged but no required to do so.”

The goal, says Aquinas schools president Ted Knutson, is to “safely open our schools on time, face to face, five days a week, and to remain open. We have determined the best way to meet this goal in our three elementary schools is to begin the school year requiring face coverings for our P3-6th grade students as they do not have an option to be vaccinated.

“We also believe that our (seventh to 12th grade) student population has an extra layer of protection — vaccine — that our P3-grade 6 students do not. We clearly understand that any decision addressing face coverings may disappoint some parents and students. I ask for your support as we begin the school year.”

Aquinas schools will continue to monitor and review information from the CDC, DHS, La Crosse County Health Department, American Academy of Pediatrics, the Diocese of La Crosse and area medical providers/experts.

“Broad national guidelines may address areas in the United States with high transmission rates but may not be relevant to local conditions,” Knutson said. “Local community conditions are and will continue to be considered throughout our ongoing decision-making process. We will be adjusting this protocol once all of the local schools are back in session and it is demonstrated that we can loosen the requirements.”

The School District of La Crosse is following Harvard Global Health Institute guidelines, which advise masking in grades 4K-7 when case rates are over 2 per 100,000 per day. From Tuesday through Thursday, cases averaged 16.8, up 60% from the week prior. Due to the sharp rise in cases, the district is now requiring masking indoors for all students in 4K through 12.

Under the revised criteria, students in 4K through 8th grade must mask until rates fall below 1 per 100,000 per day, or until vaccines are available to this group. High schoolers will not be required to wear masks if the case rate falls below 7. If high school students district wide reach an 80% vaccination rate, masking will be strongly encouraged rather than required. At present, La Crosse County residents age 12 to 17 have a vaccination rate of 61%, superintendent Aaron Engel said Friday.

Additional mitigation strategies for the School District include distancing of three feet when possible, assisting the Health Department with contact tracing, utilizing ventilation with five air exchanges per hour and encouraging vaccination for eligible persons. The district will also be providing COVID-19 testing, Engel says.

Emily Pyrek can be reached at emily.pyrek@lee.net.

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