Kelly Maday got some news Feb. 2 that many parents have received this school year: One of her kids was determined to be a close contact of a student who tested positive for COVID-19.
Maday has three children, ranging from kindergarten through sixth grade, in the Ashland School District. All three kids are members of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, as is Maday's husband, Eric.
When Maday, who is white and not a member of the band, received the call from the school’s nurse telling her that the oldest of the three was a COVID-19 close contact, she agreed to have him quarantined and tested in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
According to Maday, the nurse, Megan Kupczyk, asked her if she had any other children in the district. Maday said she did but none of them had any symptoms, so she wanted to keep the other two in school. Maday said Kupczyk told her that wasn’t possible and that all three would have to quarantine.
“At that point, I probably became a little bit defensive,” Maday told the News Tribune.
Maday said she doesn’t exactly remember how the conversation ended but said it wasn’t on good terms. An hour later, Maday said, she received a voicemail from Kupczyk saying after talking with the administration, her children were pulled from their classrooms and were put in the isolation room until someone could get them.
Though the CDC does not require household members of a close contact with no symptoms to quarantine, it is highly recommended, especially if that person has not yet been tested. Ashland County Public Health Administrator Liz Szot said best practices are to have all household members quarantine to minimize the risk of spreading COVID-19.
“If that close contact were to develop symptoms, it’s a significant increased risk, so by the time that kiddo would develop symptoms, the other household members would already be exposed,” Szot said. “Which means you have two other kiddos that could be exposing COVID-19 to two other classrooms, and it could very quickly snowball.”
Szot said this is why the Wisconsin Department of Public Institutions has recommended that schools send home all siblings and household members.
When asked about what Szot told the News Tribune, Maday said she had been told the same thing when she called Ashland County Public Health on Feb. 3. Maday said she accepts that, but what she doesn’t accept is the district’s inconsistent response to other children who have tested positive.
“If that was what they were following and I had seen that happen to all the positive cases that have come through the district, I would have never even questioned my other children being asked to quarantine,” Maday said.
In a Feb. 2 email to Ashland Superintendent Erik Olson, Maday included examples of the district not making every close contact quarantine. One of the examples included a hockey player on the boys varsity team that tested positive for COVID-19 in January, but only that player and three others were asked to quarantine because they carpooled together to the rink.
In a Feb. 3 email, Olson responded to Maday’s questions about her other children having to quarantine and the district policies regarding close contacts.
“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 quarantine,” his email said. “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.”
Olson went on to say in his email that for legal reasons, he could not share any information about students and why they may or may not have been asked to quarantine.
“Just like you have the right to maintain the confidentiality of health-related information about your children, so, too, do other parents have those same rights,” the email said.
After a few more email exchanges with Olson, Maday said he stopped responding to her questions and requests for clarification on school policy. That’s when she decided to find a lawyer. At the recommendation of a friend, Maday and her husband decided to hire civil rights attorney Jeff Spitzer-Resnick of Systems Change Consulting.
Spitzer-Resnick said he wasn’t surprised when he heard Maday’s story.
“I’ve always said in all my years of practice that when I finally hear about a problem that probably means it’s happened about 10 times already,” he said about discrimination complaints.
According to the American Psychological Association, discipline disparities can be signs of racial bias within a district.
Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction data, from 2016 to 2020, shows students of color in the Ashland School District have been disproportionately punished with out-of-school suspensions compared to their white counterparts.
Though students of color in the district have made up about 30% of the total population, they received around 60% of all out-of-school suspensions each school year from 2016 to 2020. Data has not been made available for the 2020-21 school year.
This disparity is also seen in the statewide data, where students of color make up about 30% of the total student population but receive more than 65% of out-of-school suspensions.
45 minutes in an isolation room
Regardless of the quarantine protocols, Maday said she was most upset by her children spreading about 45 minutes in the isolation room before her husband could get them.
The Ashland School District’s “Return to Learn” plan states each building has an isolation room for anyone who exhibits COVID-19-like symptoms. Maday said none of her children was exhibiting symptoms that day and didn’t at any point during the quarantine period, therefore, she strongly believes her children should not have been in the isolation room.
“When they got home they were extremely upset and had a lot of questions, and I was angry,” she said.
Maday said her kindergartner was crying when she got home and it’s been a struggle for her to go back to school.
“She’s cried every day since, and hasn’t wanted to go to school,” Maday said, adding it has been difficult for her to get ready every morning. “I got a call from her teacher one day saying that she was crying on the playground, crying in the classroom and wanted her brother and wanted to go home. We’re trying to teach her that she has to go to school, so we’re working through it.”
‘I can’t see this happen to more kids’
Spitzer-Resnick said he explained to the Madays the downsides of moving forward with a discrimination complaint, especially in a small community such as Ashland. Since speaking out, Maday said her family has received social media and text messages of support from others, but they’ve also received a lot of negative comments and pressure to let it go.
“My husband and I have no intention of quitting this. We went into it knowing that we’re not rich, we don’t have a ton of money and it’s going to take everything we have,” Maday said. “But I can’t see this happen to more kids and I can’t see our district continue to discriminate against people and we will spend every dime we have to make sure that this is changed.”
Spitzer-Resnick sent a letter to Olson informing the district he had been retained by the Madays and requested “engaging in good faith negotiations or mediation to resolve this dispute.” Spitzer-Resnick sent the letter Feb. 8 and still had not received any response as of Friday from the district or the district’s attorney.
Spitzer-Resnick and the Madays are working to file a complaint with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. Spitzer-Resnick said though they have no plans to file a civil lawsuit against the school district at this time, it is not off the table.
Ashland School District Superintendent Erik Olson did not respond to News Tribune's requests for comment for this story.