Updated on Aug. 25 at 3:10 p.m.
Ava Rheeve says she noticed the double standard immediately. When Cedarburg High School opened in the fall, students would not be required to wear masks, the school announced on July 15 — but they would still have to abide by the dress code.
As a senior at the southeastern Wisconsin school, Rheeve can’t wear tank tops with spaghetti straps. Shirts must cover her entire torso, showing no skin along the midriff or in the back. Shorts and skirts should extend from “hips to tips,” according to the student handbook: If fabric does not reach a student’s fingertips when her arms are by her sides, she says, she could be sent to the principal’s office.
Certain clothing choices are a “disruption to the education process,” the handbook says.
So is coming to school without a mask, says Rheeve.
“They say my shoulders are somehow a distraction to a boy’s education,” said Rheeve. “Well then isn’t it also distracting to wonder if that person over there might be breathing pandemic germs all over me?”
Rheeve and fellow senior Julia Going decided to do something about the school’s decision. The night they heard about the lack of mask policy, they drafted a petition for Cedarburg to reverse course.
“Administration has been able to discipline students in the past for rules as trivial as shorts length and tank-top strap width,” wrote Rheeve and Going, “thus it carries that they should be equipped to handle violations which endanger the lives of Cedarburg students, teachers, families, and community members.”
Nearly 1,500 people have signed the petition since it was drafted on July 16. Within two weeks, the Cedarburg school district voted to reverse the policy: When schools open in September, students will be required to wear masks.
As schools across the country reopen for the fall — many without mask mandates — critics have been highlighting what they see as a glaring contradiction: If administrators don’t feel they can require students to wear masks, how can they still punish girls for too-short shorts, or necklines that dip too far down? At Cedarburg, Rheeve says, the female student body “collectively recognizes” the unfairness of the dress code. When the administration chose to forgo a mask mandate, she says, the unfairness became harder to ignore.
“Regardless of anyone’s beliefs on wearing masks, we are extremely proud of the courage our students showed in taking a stand for what they believe,” principal Adam Kurth said in a statement. “Ava and Julia showed tremendous maturity in their advocacy for the safety of themselves, their peers, and our school community.”
Rheeve and Going have been friends since the second grade. They’ve always excelled in school, Rheeve said, taking the same advanced classes and participating in plays after school. They don’t get to hang out much these days, Rheeve says — they’re both trying to socially distance. But when they do see each other, they grab food and then drive home to “do activism,” she says, always sitting six feet apart.
Going called Rheeve as soon as she heard about the school’s decision on masks. The coronavirus had made its way through her family, infecting her sister, her grandmother and grandfather. Her grandfather died of the virus, alone in his nursing home. No family members were permitted to go say goodbye.
“I knew not a lot of people were going to wear a mask of their own accord,” said Going. A schoolwide mask mandate, she said, would “help to keep people safe.”
A small town on the outskirts of Milwaukee, Cedarburg is solidly conservative, Rheeve said. President Trump won the county by 19 points in 2016. In Cedarburg, the decision to wear a mask feels “very politicized,” Going says, with many doing whatever they can to avoid it. When she wears her mask around town, she says, she feels like she is publicly displaying her political affiliation.
“Either you’re conservative and will not wear a mask, or you’re a Democrat and you will,” said Going.
When Going and Rheeve published the petition on Change.org, Going said, they knew they’d get pushback. They started by sharing the document on their own social media platforms; Their moms shared it on theirs. They saved the most contentious platform for last, Going said: The message group with all 200 members of Cedarburg’s rising senior class.
“We were deciding who was going to be the one to send it, because whoever did would get a lot of mean people talking to them,” said Going.
Going sent the link to the petition at 7:42 p.m.
The responses started coming in immediately.
“I’ll pass,” one student wrote.
“WTF,” another said. A few classmates took the opportunity to publicize their support for “Trump 2020.”
Someone called Going a “ding-dong.”
“I didn’t really know what that meant,” she said. “But I guess there are worse things they could have called me.”
The debate continued — with some students sticking up for Going and Rheeve, others claiming that masks don’t actually work — until someone alluded to Going’s grandfather. No one really knew what to say to that, Rheeve said.
While many of their classmates were critical, people throughout the Cedarburg community reached out with positive feedback, thanking Rheeve and Going for taking a stand. It was especially moving, Rheeve said, to hear from teachers who didn’t feel they could voice their concerns about returning to school without a mask mandate. They started to collect testimonials, creating what became a 30-page document of reasons local schools should require masks.
The dress code issue came up again and again, said Rheeve, especially for female students. Rheeve and Going have never been disciplined for what they wore: They have managed to avoid the teachers notorious for sending girls to the principal’s office for clothing violations, she said. But plenty of their friends have been “humiliated” by the dress code, Rheeve said.
“You are telling girls that their bodies are inherently sexual,” said Rheeve. “Maybe in the 1400s my shoulders were the epitome of scandal but at this point I really think we should have moved past this.”
The school board called a public meeting to discuss the issue. Rheeve and Going signed up to give a speech, highlighting their petition and their reasons for writing it.
Approximately 200 people showed up, Rheeve said, spread out throughout the Cedarburg field house. As community members voiced opinions on either side, Rheeve watched one particular member of the school board, who she says repeatedly cut off people who spoke in favor of a mask mandate.
When she and Going got up to speak, she says, she stared at this one member, trying to make eye contact. But he wouldn’t look at her, she says.
“I got up there, and I felt the fire.”
The school board voted at the end of the meeting, resolving that schools would require masks in the fall.
While the Wisconsin governor instituted a statewide mask mandate a few days later, Rheeve said, it still felt like a major victory. A few boys in her class are already talking about the Trump masks they plan to wear on the first day of school.
That’s perfectly fine, Rheeve says: Their masks can say whatever they want, as long as they wear one.