Gina Kildahl sued Fall Creek School District for not protecting her 7-year-old son and other students from COVID-19.
When this school year started amid a surge of coronavirus cases sparked by the especially contagious Delta variant, Gina Kildahl was surprised the Fall Creek district her 7-year-old son attends didn’t require face masks or take any of the other precautions that were in place last year, when infections were lower.
Kildahl said she sent Fall Creek Superintendent Joe Sanfelippo messages seeking COVID-19 protections for her son and other children who attend the Eau Claire County district. She said she was told many other districts weren’t mandating masks, and that many district parents supported that stance.
Then, on Sept. 27, despite his wearing a mask at school, Kildahl’s son tested positive for COVID-19. He was among a growing number of youths in the district of 835 students contracting the virus. Kildahl felt she had to take action to better protect her son and others as most students were not wearing masks. She filed a lawsuit Monday against the district for its failure to require masks and enact other measures intended to reduce virus transmission.
“The school board and the superintendent are not providing a safe environment,” Kildahl said when asked what prompted her to file the lawsuit,which was funded by Minocqua Brewing Company Super PAC and backed by brewery owner Kirk Bangstad. “They are listening to a loud minority and letting their personal beliefs come before children’s safety.”
Sanfelippo said he has not yet received the lawsuit and declined comment.
The issue of masks and other COVID-19 strategies in schools has become increasingly contentious in recent months in Wisconsin and elsewhere across the country. Discussion of the topic has been heated enough at some school board meetings to prompt calls to police and the cancellation of meetings. In some cases school board members are resigning in the face of threats against them for supporting actions to curb the virus.
In the Spotlight
The lawsuit has prompted national media attention for Kildahl she didn’t foresee. She appeared for an interview on CNN Tuesday, during which she said Fall Creek district officials have failed to live up to their stated goal of providing students a safe place to learn.
Since then, Kildahl told UpNorthNews, she has been “completely overwhelmed” with reactions to the lawsuit. Many in the Fall Creek community, which she has called home for nearly two decades, vehemently disagree with her, she said. Some say she is out to harm the school district. Others have characterized her on Facebook, and other social media platforms as a pawn of what they describe as liberals pushing mask regulations.
“It’s just been really hard,” Kildahl said of negative pushback. “There are people who I consider friends who are now saying some very negative things about me. It hurts.”
Kildahl said she is particularly disappointed at anger directed against her for what she views as taking action to protect children, and the rest of the community, from COVID-19. Protests against masks and their being viewed as “taking away someone’s freedom” have grown as the issue has increasingly become politicized, she said.
“Why don’t people want to protect their children? I’m baffled by that,” she said.
However, Kildahl said she has also received many positive comments about her willingness to push for COVID-19 protections at schools. Many young people and some from surrounding communities have voiced support for her, thanking her for her willingness to endure harsh reactions to support a cause they back.
“It’s good to know those voices are out there,” Kildahl said. “There are a lot of people who support masks in school and other (COVID-19) mitigation strategies.
Kildahl’s lawsuit is the third filed in Wisconsin against school districts for not requiring masks and failing to implement other measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19. In addition to Kildahl’s legal action, Shannon Jensen filed a lawsuit against the Waukesha School District on Oct. 5 after her son was infected with the virus.
As in Fall Creek, Waukesha schools also do not require masks. The Waukesha lawsuit also is backed by the brewery Super PAC.
The first legal action against a Wisconsin school was filed Oct. 1 in the Menomonie district, where parents Tomas Pearson and Tiffani Taggart requested a due process hearing related to a lack of COVID-19 protections for their 6-year-old daughter who has Down syndrome and is at higher risk of contracting and being impacted by the virus. The Menomonie School Board voted twice against requiring masks before mandating them for students in kindergarten through sixth grade.
Schools not requiring face masks and practices such as social distancing, contact tracing, and quarantining of students deemed to have been exposed to COVID-19 are operating counter to the advice of public health officials. The Centers for Disease and Control Prevention, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, medical experts and other health officials recommend those practices as a way to slow COVID-19 infections.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jill Underly, Wisconsin Education Association Council President Peggy Wirtz-Olsen and other education advocates also support masks and efforts to reduce COVID-19 transmission in schools.
County health officers across Wisconsin told UpNorthNews they are concerned about the lack of masks and other COVID-19 mitigation practices at schools. For instance, in Chippewa County, the Chippewa Falls and New Auburn school districts recently dropped previous rules for quarantining students exposed to the virus and are allowing parents to decide whether to send those students to school.
“I definitely have concerns about that,” Chippewa County Public Health Director Angela Weideman said in a recent interview. “If school districts are looking at how to reduce the number of (COVID-19) cases, that is not a good strategy for doing that.”
Despite negative reactions and unwanted publicity, Kildahl said she was willing to file the lawsuit and endure personal attacks and comments that she is against the school district. The mother of four said she normally is a supporter of the district and Sanfelippo.
“But what the district is doing now is not safe for kids,” she said. “My kids are important, and I need to do this for them and for other kids. I’m just asking for reasonable accommodations for keeping the virus away from kids.”