Hundreds of Western Dubuque High School students were potentially exposed to COVID-19 while attending a graduation practice last month, according to the father of an attendee and some recent graduates.
Epworth resident Paul Silich is seeking more information about the practice after his son said he was kept in a hallway without enough space to practice social distancing.
Silich has since filed a complaint with the Iowa Public Information Board alleging that the Western Dubuque Community School District is delaying his request to obtain information related to the practice.
“All of these students were potentially exposed to COVID-19,” Silich said. “I want to know who made the decision that allowed this to happen.”
WD officials held graduation practice June 26 with the intent to host the ceremony on the school football field. Hours after the practice concluded, however, the district emailed parents that a student who attended the practice had tested positive for COVID-19 and that graduates would instead be invited to a drive-up ceremony.
Some recent graduates who went to the practice said that at one point, they were required to wait in a hallway and stand close to each other, unable to socially distance. Face masks were not provided.
“We had to wait in the hallway as they called our names alphabetically,” Alisa Marin said. “We were pretty tight in there.”
WD graduate Elizabeth Wilhelm said students were originally supposed to practice outside, but a rainstorm prompted school officials to bring them into the hallway. However, students received little direction after that, she said.
“For me, it was super confusing,” Wilhelm said. “There were no adults or anything telling us where to go. Some of us were trying to social distance, but it was very confusing.”
Silich said that when his son returned from the practice, he complained to his father about being kept in the hallway without the needed space to socially distance.
“He said everyone had to stand right next to each other,” Silich said. “No one was wearing masks or anything like that.”
Some graduates said there was room in the hall to practice social distancing, but few students actually attempted to separate themselves.
“There was room to keep your distance, but a lot of people were standing in groups,” Sydney Kleusner said.
Graduate Trenton Hammerand said teachers and principals encouraged students to stand apart, but many students stood in groups, anyway.
“Everybody was glad to see each other and wanted to talk,” Hammerand said. “We were being encouraged to socially distance, but I don’t think a lot of people really cared.”
Superintendent Rick Colpitts declined to comment for this article, as did Western Dubuque Community School Board President Jessica Pape.
Silich later filed a complaint with the Iowa Public Information Board alleging that the district is attempting to delay a Freedom of Information Act request Silich made to get more information about the graduation practice.
On June 27, he emailed Superintendent Rick Colpitts asking for written or electronic communication among district administrators, employees and members of the public regarding the scheduling, cancellation, rescheduling and execution of the Western Dubuque High School graduation ceremony. Silich also requested correspondence detailing precautionary or remedial actions implemented after the practice, according to emails Silich provided to the TH.
Dustin Zeschke, attorney for the district, emailed Silich that his request would result in more than 10,000 emails being disclosed and asked Silich to narrow his request. Silich and Zeschke agreed to only include correspondence between four school district administrators involved in the planning of graduation.
Silich emailed Zeschke July 8 asking for an update on the records request. Zeschke emailed Silich the next day that the district was “working on a timely response.” Zeschke added that the narrowed search would encompass more than 3,000 emails, and the district would charge Silich $200 for their retrieval and review.
In a follow-up email, Silich contended that the charges were “excessive and not consistent with the statute that limits fees to actual costs.” Zeschke replied that the documents would take an estimated 10 hours to review, and the employee reviewing the documents will be paid $20 per hour.
Silich told the Telegraph Herald he believes the number of emails identified signals an attempt by the district to delay the disclosure of public documents. He said he believes the $200 charge is another step officials are taking to dissuade him from trying to obtain the documents.
“I think they are doing this to delay or discourage me from finding out what is in those emails,” Silich said. “I have nothing to gain from this. I just want information.”
Brett Toresdahl, deputy director for the Iowa Public Information Board, said information still needs to be gathered regarding Silich’s complaint before it can be presented to the board, whose next meeting is scheduled for Aug. 20.