So, the rules say a lot of skin must be covered. And perhaps unsurprisingly, nearly every female student at the high school, about 20 miles north of Milwaukee, has had some run-in with the dress code and the teachers who determine its violators, according to seniors Ava Rheeve and Julia Going.
The dress code is one thing, fair or not. But if it’s fair, then why, these students wanted to know, did the Cedarburg School District not want faces covered to stop or at least slow the spread of the coronavirus?
Bare shoulders cause no real harm. An unmasked face, on the other hand, can lead to death.
This summer, when the Cedarburg School Board opted not to require students to wear masks when returning to classrooms this year, the two friends couldn’t help but notice the irony.
If the school could enforce a dress code, why not face coverings?
A Change.org petition started by Rheeve and Going garnered nearly 1,500 signatures while the pair’s efforts received countless messages of support — and dissent — from the Cedarburg community. Their story also gained national attention.
Ultimately, the friends succeeded in getting the school board to reconsider its stance on masks.
While dress codes are one of the oldest ways to discriminate against young women, that’s not why Rheeve and Going chose to take a stand.
They took a stand because it was the right thing to do.
They also knew going back to school wouldn’t be safe without masks, Rheeve said.
“I knew there was no chance we could try to have a normal year if we didn’t wear masks,” she said.
“Friends forever,” the duo said. Rheeve and Going are quick to add that they make a great team. They met in second grade and attended the same elementary, middle and high school in Cedarburg, a town of approximately 11,400 people.
As they grew older, they developed unique interests. Going is on the student council and participates on her high school swim team and a rowing team in nearby Milwaukee. Rheeve is a student ambassador on the Cedarburg Education Foundation board and is finishing an internship at REDGen, where she’s learning to advocate for mental health awareness and resiliency in Wisconsin teenagers.
As of Sept. 10, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services had reported more than 83,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the state. Of those cases, 1,030 are in Ozaukee County, where Cedarburg resides. Milwaukee County, just to the south, has more than 25,000 confirmed cases.
When the Cedarburg School Board made its decision on masks in mid-July, Going immediately called Rheeve.
Going said she was “dumbfounded” when she heard the district wasn’t mandating masks. Her sister, grandmother and grandfather all tested positive for the coronavirus. Her grandfather died from it, alone in his nursing home.
“This is the simplest solution, so why would we not do it?” Going said.
The pair was all in to take a stand.
Their petition went live the next day.
“Knowing that only a small number of student COVID-19 cases will require hundreds of students to remain home for several weeks, requiring masks is the only option which can be effective to prolong the amount of time students will be able to stay in their school this year,” Going and Rheeve wrote on the petition. “Failing to require masks will allow rampant spread of the virus, likely closing our schools soon after they reopen, a choice which will disadvantage many Cedarburg families and set our students farther behind in their education.”
Enforcing masks would be no different from enforcing the school’s dress code, the petition claimed.
Going said the more she and Rheeve explored the school’s dress code, the stronger the connection became.
“If a student does not change her clothes, she is sent home,” the pair continued on their petition. “Administration has been able to discipline students in the past for rules as trivial as shorts length and tank-top strap width, thus it carries that they should be equipped to handle violations which endanger the lives of Cedarburg students, teachers, families, and community members.”
The petition closed by stating students should not have to “risk their lives to access education.”
Dress codes are among the most common ways inequality plays out among U.S. students, especially female students, according to Melissa Kirby, executive director of Girl Up, a U.S.-based organization founded by the United Nations Foundation, which focuses on educating and empowering adolescent girls.
“It reinforces negative concepts about a girl’s value and seeks to shift accountability where it doesn’t belong,” Kirby said. “For example, it’s not a girl’s responsibility to not ‘distract’ boys in their classrooms, and a girl’s academic ability is in no way tied to their appearance or capacity for self-control.”
Kirby said this is the first she’s heard of mask enforcement being tied to a school dress code, and she applauds Going and Rheeve for challenging the “status quo.”
“I’ve heard of many girls … using their advocacy skills to work with their schools for more fair and gender-neutral policies across the board,” Kirby added. “Little by little, these kinds of things are how we’ll make a difference in the world.”
This was the first time Rheeve and Going tackled something like this outside the classroom. They knew Cedarburg residents wouldn’t hesitate to voice their opinions on the petition or the topic of masks.
At one point, Going’s sister shared the petition in a community Facebook group, but the post was removed when the comments created “too much drama.”
The pair also received pushback from fellow students.
After sharing the petition in a message group with all 200 members of Cedarburg’s senior class, the response was instantaneous.
“I’ll pass,” one student wrote. Others used it to publicize their support for “Trump 2020.”
“Cedarburg can be a divisive place,” Rheeve said. “Wisconsin is a swing state, so we always have people on both sides of every issue — and they are not afraid to voice their opinions.”
Cedarburg High School Principal Adam Kurth said he wasn’t surprised Going and Rheeve decided to take action on something they believe in.
“Ava and Julia are some of the most active and academically engaged students,” Kurth said. “Knowing these two and all they have done during their years at Cedarburg High School, it’s not surprising they decided to make a statement.”
Rheeve and Going brought the petition before the Cedarburg School Board for consideration on July 29, just three days before Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers ordered a statewide mask mandate into effect. The friends included with it more than 30 pages filled with statements of support from town residents.
Going and Rheeve pleaded their case, and hours of public comment followed. Some spoke in support of the girls, others did not.
In the end, the Cedarburg School Board relented. It passed the mask requirement, 5-1.
“There was no way we were going to convince that one person,” Rheeve said. “The others were all open to our arguments.”
Under the approved amendment to the school’s reopening plan, face masks must be worn by all people including students when entering and exiting school grounds, and when social distancing of 6 feet or greater cannot be maintained during the school day. The mandate does not include athletics or other extracurricular activities.
The district plans to review the requirement every two weeks, according to board meeting minutes.
Once the requirement passed, Rheeve and Going heard from Cedarburg High School alumni, congratulating them on their “win.” School board President Chris Reimer also congratulated them.
Kurth said it’s not the job of school administration to take sides or debate the value of masks. However, since taking an issue before the school board can prove daunting for any student, he did his best to support Rheeve and Going through the process. He even posed for the photo used on their petition page.
“As educators, we’re proud of Ava and Julia for having the courage to advocate for what they believe in on one of the biggest stages we have,” he said. “Advocacy is something we hope all of our students learn and practice.”
The best feeling for Going was knowing their success allowed everyone to return to school safely.
Tuesday was the first day of school at Cedarburg. Everyone wore masks, and nearly everyone wore them properly, Going and Rheeve said. If a student didn’t have a mask, teachers were accommodating and provided one.
“It is really being taken seriously, and I’m so happy,” Rheeve added.
Nearby schools already are reporting coronavirus cases in their hallways — one confirmed case was reported at Thorson Elementary in Cedarburg and another at Grafton High School, according to a National Education Association COVID-19 tracker. Still, Rheeve and Going said things would likely be “a lot worse” without masks. They also hope their school will remain committed to student safety throughout the pandemic.
But if they have to petition the school board again, they will.
As for Cedarburg’s dress code, that’s a fight for another day.
“We didn’t expect to get the coverage we got with this, but it just kept escalating,” Rheeve said. “If you want to take a stand, you never know how far your message will go, so you might as well try.”