Madison Metropolitan School District staff and students must continue to wear masks indoors for at least two more weeks.
The district announced Friday that it would extend its mask mandate once again and will review it on a biweekly basis going forward. MMSD remains one of two Wisconsin school districts, along with Milwaukee Public Schools, known to have a mask mandate.
The district has seen case numbers increase each of the past four weeks available on its case tracker, with 194 the week of April 25. That’s the most cases in any week this school year outside of the Omicron surge in January.
MMSD has extended its mask mandate three times this spring since Public Health Madison & Dane County announced it would let its countywide mandate, which began last August, expire March 1. Other districts in Dane County either moved immediately to mask-optional or phased out of their mask mandates following the PHMDC change.
In February, the district announced it would extend its mandate through spring break and evaluate case numbers in the weeks following, with an announcement promised by April 15.
Then, in the early evening of Friday, April 15, the district announced it would extend the mandate into May with another update by May 6.
A video recording of the district’s weekly metrics meeting from the week of the last announcement shows the long list of considerations officials are considering in their mask mandate decision-making.
Those included how going to mask recommended would affect immunocompromised students and what would happen if they moved to recommended but had to return to a mandate if numbers rose. That’s exactly what MPS would do a week after that April 12 meeting, when it moved to mask-optional for two school days before returning to a mandate amid rising case numbers.
“This is much more complex than just a metric of when cases are high or low,” MMSD executive director of student and staff supports Leia Esser said. “We have to consider implications for those who have recently come out of isolation or those who have complex medical conditions.”
Other considerations included masking for those who had tested positive but returned to school after five days without symptoms, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends they mask; variance in vaccination numbers by demographics and what removing the mandate would mean for athletics and extracurricular activities.
Dr. Ellen Wald, one of the district’s medical advisers throughout the pandemic, said at that meeting that “it just doesn’t make sense to take off masks at this particular time,” suggesting that even in a “mask recommended” environment more than 50% of students would likely not wear masks.
“The fact that everybody else is doing something different, I think that’s OK,” Wald said. “It doesn’t trouble me so much. I think we’re doing the right thing.”
Districts have varied in their approach to pandemic health and safety measures, with some making decisions at the School Board level and others leaving it to administrators. With a few exceptions, the Madison School Board has mostly left it to administrators, including on the mask mandate.
Christina Gomez Schmidt, the School Board member assigned to attend the weekly metrics meetings, expressed exasperation at the April 12 meeting that the district hadn’t moved to mask-optional when numbers were lower in March.
The weeks of Feb. 28, March 7 and March 14 — all just after the PHMDC mandate expired — saw total case numbers among students and staff in the low 40s.