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School districts starting to plan what fall may look like, and whether masks will be a part of it

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MADISON (WKOW) -- School districts across our area are starting to make moves to return to normal next fall -- even as children under age 12 are still unable to get vaccinated against the coronavirus.

The Madison Metropolitan School District announced Thursday that it would return to full, in-person learning. The district says the decision was made now because of the decreasing rate of positive COVID-19 cases and increasing number of people vaccinated in Madison. A virtual option will still be offered for middle and high schoolers.

Madison is also no longer requiring masks for graduation ceremonies, saying that since it's so hot outside, masks are now optional for students, families, staff and anyone else attending. Groups are still asked to stay six feet apart.

Some school districts are starting to make decisions about face coverings. Brodhead's superintendent emailed parents saying masks are now optional in the district -- no longer required. The school board in Janesville voted similarly -- ending a requirement that was already set to expire at the end of July.

UW Health's Dr. Jeff Pothof says how we unmask has to be driven by who is vaccinated.

"It's not unreasonable to think about removing the mask mandate for those older kids 12+ who are vaccinated," he said. "For summer school, those grades K-6, I think a mask is a really good idea."

Dr. Pothof says it's clear the vaccines work, and anyone who is not vaccinated -- which includes everyone under age 12 -- is still at risk from catching COVID-19 and becoming incredibly ill, or even dying.

"I get that we all want to take the mask off," he said. "But if that even causes one kid in our state to lose their life, I would postulate it's not worth it."

MMSD says exact protocols for the fall will be decided later this summer.

Dr. Pothof says districts should wait to make those kinds of decisions because he expects a vaccine approved for young kids before school starts.

"In a really optimistic kind of tune, we might see it be August," he said. "More realistic, September."

Some districts have already made those decisions, though -- like Brodhead and Janesville.

In a letter to parents Thursday, Brodhead Superintendent Leonard Lueck said masks would be optional.

"While masks are optional for those that want to wear them, they are no longer required on school grounds or in the school buildings."

Letter to Brodhead families

Dr. Pothof says, in general, he's uncomfortable with "optional" policies because they put more than just the unmasked children at greater risk.

"If I have one parent who says, 'I'm not going to mask my kid,' and another parent who says, 'I am going to mask my kid,' then if the parent that doesn't mask has the kid who has COVID, even though those other parents are having their kids wear a mask, they've taken on additional risk because there's now potentially unmasked COVID-positive kids in that class," he said.

For those graduation ceremonies this weekend, Dr. Pothof says if you're outside and spread apart, unvaccinated people like young family members can probably get away with not wearing a mask. However, whenever getting close to people -- like in a entering or exiting -- they should probably slip a mask back on.

Dr. Pothof says that applies only for outdoor graduation ceremonies. Anything inside should remain mask-on for unvaccinated people.

Seniors at Madison East and West high schools graduate Friday. Memorial and La Follette seniors graduate Saturday.

Andrew Merica

Reporter/Producer, 27 News

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