Our mask mandate was about our care for others

Every year, Decorah Community School District has three to six teachers who are blessed with being pregnant during the school year. Those individuals continue to serve other children as they prepare to welcome their own children into the world. Our mask mandate was in place to give those teachers the peace of mind needed to do their job effectively. 

We have staff who provide love and care to elderly parents. They work in close quarters with dozens and even hundreds of students and fellow staff each day and then act with love and care for their dependent family members in their personal life. Our mask mandate was in place to give those staff the comfort to serve others while still serving those they love most. 

We have students who live with high-risk grandparents, parents, and family members. They spend every day surrounded by their peers on our buses, in our classrooms, and on our playgrounds. Then they go home and give hugs to those they love. They sit on the couch together and watch a movie, and at the dinner table talking and laughing. Our mask mandate was in place to give those students and families the opportunity to feel safe at school and safe at home.

My wife is currently battling cancer and is an employee of Decorah Schools. My 11-year-old son is a Type I diabetic and is a fifth-grader at Decorah Middle School. My 97-year-old grandmother lives in an assisted living facility. Perhaps these personal realities heighten my empathy for those who love people most at risk of serious issues if they become infected with COVID-19.

The Decorah Community School District mask mandate was never a measure intended to force people to protect themselves, it was a measure put in place to ensure the idea that we are a community of care was more than just words. 

Today, that pregnant teacher is struggling to do their job. Today, that associate who cares for an elderly parent is less able to focus on work. Today, that student who lives with a grandparent with a heart condition is less able to learn. Today, I will worry about the choices of those who come into contact with my wife and son as they go to work and school. 

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) continue to clearly recommend individuals wear masks at school. When I cannot practice social distancing, I will continue to wear my mask for our teachers, employees, and students. I encourage everyone to demonstrate the same care for those around them.

Family First

As a school administrator there have been many times when I have encouraged those I supervise to put their family first. As a principal, I covered teachers’ classrooms so they could slip out to visit their own child’s classroom for a special event.  As a human resources administrator, I approved personal time so employees could accompany their child as they moved to college for the first time. As a superintendent, I strive to protect educators from feeling like they have to be available to students and parents 24/7.

Over the past 25 years, I have not always modeled what I encourage. I have sent my wife to attend parent/teacher conferences alone. I missed moving my son into the dorms his freshman year of college. I said, “I just can’t this year,” when my youngest asked me to be a Watch D.O.G.S. ( Dads of Great Students) volunteer at his school. I look back, with regret on what my own family has sacrificed so I could serve other families.

I write this blog today because in the past three weeks, my family’s life has been forever changed, and I feel it is important to share our story so people can understand why I am working to give myself permission to put my family first.

Wednesday, August 26, my wife had a laparoscopic surgery which resulted in a cancer diagnosis. Two days later, we received a more specific diagnosis of peritoneal mesothelioma. As we spent Saturday, August 29 wrapping our minds around this news, our son Calhoun experienced a health crisis leading to an ambulance ride to Rochester, and at 3:00 am Sunday, August 30, the pediatric ICU physician told me Calhoun was a type I diabetic. We spent the next three days at Saint Mary’s Hospital receiving a crash course in managing type I diabetes.

Cal was discharged at about 7:00 pm Tuesday, September 1. We drove home from Rochester, and gave my mother-in-law a quick tutorial in how to check blood sugar and administer insulin injections. This quick training was necessary because she would be managing Cal’s first day home as a type I diabetic, because Carla had to be back in Rochester for her first oncology appointment at 6:45 am Wednesday, September 2.

We slept for a few hours and then headed out for our return trip to Mayo. After checking in, Carla and I sat in the 10th floor waiting room of the Gonda Building providing FaceTime coaching for Calhoun’s first at-home blood sugar check and insulin injection. While Cal did have to say, “no that’s not right Granny,” in the end, grandma was successful.

After the appointment, Carla and I got back in the car to head home to Decorah. As we were on our way home, we stopped along the way at a highway 52 roadside parking area with a canoe/kayak launch on the Root River. This felt like the first moment we could actually breath and talk in days. We spent about an hour sitting on the bank of the river processing all that had happened over past five days. We cried.

Since that day, I have added things to my calendar. I have added appointments with Calhoun’s diabetic dietician, and his endocrinologist. I have added Carla’s chemotherapy appointments. I have also added a couple vacation days so Carla and I can take a trip to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to experience the fall colors.

I am incredibly grateful to our school board members and to my co-workers who have encouraged me to put my family first, and to take this time. I am also grateful to my wife, Carla, and my children, Savannah, Will, and Calhoun who understand how hard it is for me to turn my educator brain off. For 25 years, their grace, forgiveness, and willingness to share me with whatever school district I serve has been amazing.

I share this blog today to let people know that as a husband, father, and superintendent, I am a work in progress. In every aspect of my life, I am working to figure out my new normal.




You need us soon; We need you now

Friday July 10, 2020, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), American Federation of Teachers (AFT), National Education Association (NEA), and AASA, the American Association of School Administrators (the School Superintendents Association) released a joint statement urging a safe return to school for the 2020-2021 academic year. The organizations stated in part, “Returning to school is important for the healthy development and well-being of children, but we must pursue reopening in a way that is safe for all students, teachers, and staff. Science should drive decision-making on safely reopening schools. Public health agencies must make recommendations based on evidence, not politics. We should leave it to health experts to tell us when the time is best to open up school buildings, and listen to educators and administrators to shape how we do it.”

As school leaders we heartily agree with this sentiment. We firmly believe in the power of learning built on a foundation of relationships and social interaction.  We also recognize that the ability for children to physically attend school allows our local workforce to function and our community to thrive.  We want to see our students in our hallways and classrooms, on our stages, and on our fields and gym floors.  We want to share in the joy of community building and learning together.  Yet, we also see the great risks presented to our students, staff, and families if we aren’t purposeful, diligent, and consistent in practicing essential COVID-19 risk mitigation strategies and practices.

Today, we must recognize that cause and effect are almost never closely related in time. As a community, the decisions we make–and the actions we take–over the next four to six weeks can either greatly increase or drastically reduce the likelihood of any on-site learning for our students in August and September.  We know parents, employers, and our students want our schools to reopen.  We need everyone in our community to take purposeful steps to make that happen.

Here are simple steps we can all take to maximize the potential for reopening our schools:

Protect yourself and others from COVID-19

  • Stay home as much as possible and avoid close contact with others.
  • Wear a cloth face covering that covers your nose and mouth in public settings.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.

Practice social distancing 

  • Buy groceries and medicine, go to the doctor, and complete banking activities online when possible.
  • If you must go in person, stay at least 6 feet away from others and disinfect items you must touch.
  • Get deliveries and takeout, and limit in-person contact as much as possible.

Prevent the spread of COVID-19 if you are sick 

  • Stay home if you are sick, except to get medical care.
  • Avoid public transportation, ride-sharing, or taxis.
  • Separate yourself from other people and pets in your home.

Recent Winneshiek County history shows us the impact of our collective action.  Between May 30 and June 27, our county logged zero new positive cases of COVID-19.  Since June 28, our county has logged 26 new cases.  A June 10 Governor’s Proclamation lifting restrictions on businesses and mass gatherings, social gatherings around the Fourth of July holiday, and increased summer travel are all likely contributing factors to the return of positive cases to our county.

We still have the power to change our trajectory, to right our path, and to take the actions necessary to make on-site learning a reality for this school year.  We know our parents, students, and community need us soon.  Today, we are saying we need you now.  Thank you for your support of Decorah Schools, and thank you for doing your part to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in our community.

Ron Fadness, Decorah Community School District Board of Education President

Mark Lane, Decorah Community School District Superintendent of Schools

Steve Peterson, Decorah Education Association President

Look to the Helpers

I remember the morning of September 11, 2001 as if it was yesterday.  That morning was a perfect late-summer morning, and I was happy to be outside welcoming students as they entered our school.  After the final few students entered the building, I headed back to my office.  As I made my way through the building, I was met by our secretary, Pam, and she told me I should find a television.

I spent the next 30 minutes in a state of confusion about what I was seeing, and after the Twin Towers fell, I remember thinking, I am the counselor for 500 elementary students, and I have no idea what to do.

I went to my office, and began to study my bookshelves, hoping something would stand out.  What I found that day became a resource I would use for years to come, and I share the web version today.

Fred Rogers Productions Parent Resources for Tragic Events

In a 1986 syndicated newspaper column, Fred Rogers shared guidance for parents helping children make sense of tragic events.  He wrote,

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.

While many are likely familiar with this Fred Rogers quote, you may not have ever taken the time to read the full article.  I encourage you to take the time to use the link above to do so today.  Additionally, I encourage you to take a few moments to talk with children whom you care for about the events of September 11, 2001.  Discuss your shock, fear, and confusion about what you experienced, and then share about the good you saw in people that day, and in the days that followed.

In closing, I will share another favorite resource related to September 11, 2001, and “looking to the helpers.”  Fireboat: The Story of the John J. Harvey is a wonderful picture book about a decommissioned New York City fireboat that was called back into service that day.  Each year since it was published, I have shared this book with my own children as a way to remember and to honor the victims and helpers involved.  Here is a link to a YouTube video reading of the story.



You Belong Here

I have spent the past two days engaging with teachers and staff in preparation for welcoming our students to the 2019-2020 school year.  I have observed great work, and rich conversation about how we will meet the diverse needs of each student in our system, and I am incredibly proud of the purpose and passion our people pour into their work.

In order for this work to achieve full potential, it is critical that we foster an environment where each student knows, without a doubt, that they are valued, respected, and celebrated.  My hope is that every student believes us when we say, YOU BELONG HERE.

As I reflect on how we ensure our students feel a sense of dignity and belonging, I am reminded of one of my favorite TED Talks, The Danger of a Single Story.  In this TED Talk, Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie richly describes the consequences of telling ourselves a single story about other people based on stereotypes and biases.  She calls on us to reject a single story about others in order to claim an empowering and dignity-filled world.

I’m sharing The Danger of a Single Story in hopes that you will watch and listen, and to communicate that this is the type of environment we hope to provide to our students.  Below the TED Talk, I have also included Decorah CSD Board of Directors Policy 500.2.  This is our Equal Education Opportunities, Prohibition of Harassment and Bullying of Students policy.

As a public educator, I am proud of our state, and the specific language all Iowa school districts are required to use in this policy.  We will use this policy to guide our work in providing a high quality learning environment for each student, and we will take action when we see, or become aware of behavior that stands in contrast to our policy.

Ultimately, it is up to each person to choose how he/she will interact with those they come across in their daily lives, and we know our students will face challenging and upsetting experiences with others from time to time.  Therefore, as the adults at school, we will take purposeful action to ensure our students are treated with dignity and respect, and understand that YOU BELONG HERE.

Thanks for taking the time to read, and to listen to Ms. Ngozi Adichie’s message.

The Danger of a Single Story, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

“The consequence of the single story is that it robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult and it emphasizes that we are different rather than how we are similar.”  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


Nondiscrimination.  No student in the Decorah Community School District shall be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination in District programs on the basis of race, color, creed, sex, religion, family status, ethnic background, national origin, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, political belief or socio-economic background.  The policy of the District shall be to provide educational programs and opportunities for students as needed on the basis of individual needs, interests, abilities and potential.

Harassment and Bullying Prohibited.  The Decorah Community School District is committed to providing all students a safe and civil educational environment in which all are treated with dignity and respect.  The District is also committed to promoting understanding and appreciation of the cultural diversity of our society.  The District shall educate students about our cultural diversity and shall promote tolerance of individual differences.

Harassment and bullying of students is against the policy of the State of Iowa as well as of the Decorah Community School District.  The District shall promote procedures and practices to reduce and eliminate harassment and bullying.   The District prohibits harassment and bullying of students by other students, by employees, and by volunteers while in school, on school property, and at any school function or school-sponsored activity.  This includes harassment or bullying based on the student’s actual or perceived trait or characteristic, including the student’s actual or perceived race, color, creed, sex, age, religion, marital or familial status, ethnic background, national origin, ancestry, physical or mental ability or disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical attribute, political party preference, political belief, or socio-economic background.  Acts of harassment or bullying may be treated as grounds for discipline.  Discipline may include suspension or expulsion of a student, termination of an employee’s contract, and/or exclusion of a volunteer from District activities or premises.

Link to the full DCSD Board of Directors Policy 500.2 

A Meaningful Gift

A couple weeks ago, I had a friend who was in Decorah for a few days for work.  He was busy throughout the day, but we were able to get together two evenings for supper.  My friend is a minister, and we often talk about the similarities between the responsibilities and challenges of leading a church congregation and a school system.  We both see ourselves as servant leaders who get to work with people with great passion.  We also both have opportunities to engage with people in highly emotional and stressful circumstances.

As we were having our second supper together in as many nights, our conversation turned to how we each handle moments when others are feeling frustration, anger, or a great sense of urgency about an issue.  I described my belief that it was essential to listen empathetically, to assume good intentions, and to resist the urge to jump immediately to solving the person’s problem for them, or giving advice.

My friend responded, “you mean serve as a non-anxious presence.”  I admitted that I wasn’t familiar with that exact term, but that it sounded about right.  He went on to explain that non-anxious presence was a term he had heard often in seminary, and that his instructors worked diligently to support the development of key skills that would help future ministers provide a non-anxious presence to individuals seeking their counsel.

Since our supper, I have been doing some more reading about non-anxious presence, and I have come to believe the concept can serve as a great gift those who work in a school setting can give to students.

Edwin Friedman, a Jewish Rabbi, and family therapist, coined the term to describe, “an individual who provides a calm, cool, focused and collected environment that empowers others to be relaxed.”  From time to time, teachers, para-professionals, and principals find themselves in situations where students are agitated, frustrated, and/or in crisis.  In certain situations, a child may not have the vocabulary or awareness to talk about what is so upsetting.  In those moments, it can be easy for the adult to experience stress and frustration.  However, as the adult, we have a duty to give the gift of non-anxious presence.

Here are three reminders I am going to share with the adults with whom I work this year to increase the likelihood that when any student in our district is experiencing crisis or frustration, we don’t take actions that make things worse.

  1. Don’t make it about your needs, feelings, or expectations.
  2. Do start with the positive presupposition that the child is doing the best they know how in the given circumstances.
  3. Do ask non-judgmental questions, and spend more time listening.

The ability to present a non-anxious presence to the students we serve is a powerful tool in maintaining dignity and relationships.  I’m confident that the more we model this purposeful behavior to our students, the more capable they will become in regulating their own emotions.


Wheeler, J., (2018). Five pragmatic tools to become a non-anxious presence: Tips and tricks for being a mindful counselor, Counseling Today. Retrieved from: https://ct.counseling.org/2018/06/five-pragmatic-tools-to-become-a-nonanxious-presence-tips-and-tricks-for-being-a-mindful-counselor/