Family claims discrimination, says school did not follow COVID-19 protocol
Ashland, Wis. (WSAW) - A couple in the Ashland School District claimed the district did not follow its own protocol for managing COVID-19 positive cases, adding that their children were treated differently from others.
On Feb. 2, the nurse at the elementary school called Kelly Maday saying that one of her three children came in close contact with a student who tested positive for COVID-19. Maday said she was told, that child would need to quarantine until Feb. 8 and that her other children would also need to quarantine, regardless of symptoms. She told the school and 7 Investigates that none of her children had symptoms. Maday told the nurse her child that came in contact with the student who tested positive will stay home, but she would send the others to school.
An hour later while at work, Maday said she received a voicemail that her children were placed in isolation rooms in the school and would remain there until she picked them up.
“I called back and told her to get them out of there or let them do their virtual work, but there is no reason for them to be in there,” Maday stated in her email to the school district. Her husband then went to pick them up. She said her children were very upset and had a lot of questions about their safety and why they had to sit in the isolation room.
In her email to the school district, Maday listed four examples of times students and their families were not quarantined or isolated after coming in close contact with a positive COVID-19 case. She said the information about the examples she gave came from the parents of the student who contracted COVID-19, school board members, as well as first-hand knowledge. Maday’s children are tribal members of the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa and she stated that the children involved in her listed examples were not Native American.
“If we want to keep students safe, we should want to keep all students safe. If we want to isolate students who are exposed, then that should be for all students regardless of their race, their ethnicity, their gender, or anything,” Jeff Spitzer-Resnick, a civil rights attorney the Madays retained and owner of Systems Change Consultant told 7 Investigates. “In the family’s situation where I represent, we have Native American children who are isolated when we have information where other students in the exact same situation, often athletes on school teams, have not been asked to quarantine, or better yet, it wasn’t a request, it was a demand; it was an insistence.”
Spitzer-Resnick said he understands that schools have the important job of keeping students and staff safe in this pandemic and that they are not critical of the fact that students and staff may need to quarantine due to “a definite COVID-19 positive exposure,” but he said their evidence suggests it is not handled the same way for all students.
“If that were done uniformly for all students in Ashland, I wouldn’t be here today and my client would never have called me,” he concluded. “When you treat people differently because of the color of their skin or their national origin or their ethnic background, that’s racism; that’s not OK and those children feel that and, let’s not forget, they were removed from school. They were basically not given the education that all children in Wisconsin have a right to, so they were hurt twice.”
The superintendent, Erik Olson, declined 7 Investigates’ two interview requests. The first request was to speak specifically about the concerns Maday brought forward. Olson stated in an email response, “we are not able to comment on a specific situation that involves one of our students,” he went to say that “the District follows a set of processes and procedures based on recommendations from the Ashland County Health Department.” The second interview request asked to speak about the policies and procedures related to COVID-19 safety, which he also declined.
Spitzer-Resnick shared with 7 Investigates the response Olson sent to Maday after her initial email to the district. He confirmed her child was determined to be in close contact with a student who tested positive for COVID-19 and was within 6 feet of that student for 15 minutes or more. He stated per their policy since the fall, her child would need to be quarantined for 10 days since the last exposure with that student.
Olson cited the county’s health department recommendations that close contacts and the members of their household quarantine. He stated the district’s procedures reflect that too. “The District has followed these procedures since fall 2020 and your children have been treated no differently than other students in the district.”
He went on to say, “In your email you identified students who you believe were not subject to a quarantine in situations where you believe they should have been. Let me first respond unequivocally: in every instance where a student has been identified as a ‘close contact’ of a COVID-19 positive person, that student and his/her siblings have been subject to a quarantine. Your conclusions about who may have been a close contact of a COVID-19 positive case may indeed be different than what we determined, but I can assure you of this: we have conducted no different analysis or investigation with respect to your children as we have undertaken in other situations where we become aware that a student has tested positive for COVID-19. We contact the parent, ask questions to identify potential close contacts, and our investigation leads to conclusions about next steps.”
Olson told the Madays in reference to the examples Maday gave of exposures in her email, they cannot share information about other students for legal reasons “and why or why not such students were subject to a quarantine.” He urged, they followed protocol and it had nothing to do with their children being Native American as they claimed.
Below is what the district told parents to expect if their child came in close contact with someone with COVID-19 in a letter from September after a student tested positive.
The district also posted a COVID-19 flowchart as part of its policies on its website.
Maday told 7 Investigates the policies also indicated to her that the health department would determine if her child came in close contact, not the school. Liz Szot, the county’s public health officer stated they partner with schools to contact trace, but statewide, schools largely have taken charge of their own contact tracing, again because their knowledge within the school makes it easier for them to identify close contacts.
Szot said families and students may not necessarily be notified by the health department that they have come in close contact with a COVID-positive individual. She continued, it may be a school employee that does it, though it is possible that a health department employee would contact a family to notify them if they are able to get that information.
Spitzer-Resnick said the family takes precautions very seriously, but the Maday children knew of other children in the same situation where it was handled differently. He said they want the discrimination to stop, focusing on COVID policy, immediately, but also hoped for more.
“The long history of discrimination against Native Americans, frankly nationwide, but in particular in northern Wisconsin should surprise no one,” Spitzer-Resnick said. “And we want to see an educational effort, a cultural effort. I mean school is an educational institution. If there is going to be, one day we hope, an end to discrimination against Native Americans in Ashland and the Ashland area the children have to be taught by their teachers about the legacy of discrimination and that it is no longer acceptable.”
Spitzer-Resnick said they invited the district to have good faith negotiations and offered remediation. He sent a letter to the district last week, but as of Feb. 16, he said they have not responded.
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