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Board: Cloquet students will be masked

After deliberating at three meetings over the past two weeks, Cloquet school board members voted Monday to require universal masking indoors for grades K-12 once school starts on Sept. 8. The mandate doesn't apply to outdoor activities, including recess, sports or other classroom or school events. Masks are already federally required on all public transportation, including school buses.

The vote and the conversation showed some shift from the board's committee of the whole meeting Friday, when they spent more than an hour discussing pandemic recommendations versus restrictions. On Friday, the board seemed almost equally divided on the issue, although not every board member expressed an opinion.

Board member Ken Scarbrough said he had a change of heart over the weekend, after extending his research to include recommendations from health care organizations including the Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, Johns Hopkins and, again, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which he said he isn't always confident about. All four favored masking, especially in areas of high transmission, he said. That includes Carlton County, which has gone from a low level of community Covid transmission on Aug. 3, to a moderate, then a substantial, and now a high level of transmission.

"I spent so much time on the fence this weekend, I was starting to chafe," Scarbrough said. "Where I was definitely against masks, I am now open to some kind of masking."

A draft letter shared by superintendent Michael Cary on Friday included "strongly recommending" masks in school along with other precautions such as social distancing, but he stressed that the decision was for the board to handle.

During the work session Monday, Cary told board members he'd spoken with a local pediatrician Friday afternoon about mask effectiveness.

The doctor told him he saw far fewer cases of all viral infections among children when the mask mandates were implemented, and viral cases rose when the mandate was lifted. The doctor also said he hadn't seen any severe or chronic Covid cases among children here, but he follows other areas where the Delta variant is causing pediatric ICUs to fill up.

"I'm also hearing concerns from parents about kids who are not able to vaccinate," Cary said.

Two citizens addressed the board at the start of the formal board meeting Monday, voicing opposing opinions.

Resident Katie Zack told the board she was "amazed" that mask or no-mask was even a discussion.

"No child under 12 can be vaccinated and there's a lot of adults and children who can't be vaccinated because of whatever medical issues they may have," she said. "It's not just if the kids get sick, it's who are the staff going to bring this virus to? And Delta is now twice as contagious. To me, it's a no-brainer."

Regarding children who don't want to wear masks, she was frank.

"I don't want to get sick, I don't want my kids to get sick, I don't want you to get sick. There's a lot of things people have to do that they don't want to do: follow traffic laws, OSHA ... there's a lot of things people have to do because it's best for other people."

About a dozen people attended the Aug. 9 board meeting to express their opposition to making students wear masks. Repeat visitor Heather Brown said she believes wearing masks all day is bad for children's emotional and mental health, and wondered if the board was thinking about what "really is best for the kids." She also asked about Covid testing requirements and quarantining. Finally, she asked if any critical race theories are being introduced to the curriculum this year.

Cary responded, explaining there isn't any required testing in place, although the district might consider optional testing. Because of vaccinations, quarantine rules will be different. Cary also said there have been no changes to the curriculum about introducing or implementing CRT.

Lammi thanked both Brown and Zach for speaking out.

Second motion passes

Board member Scarbrough brought the first masking motion to the board, suggesting that the district require masks for students in grades K-6, because students under the age of 12 are unable to get vaccinated for Covid-19. The motion was for masking inside only, not outdoor activities.

Other board members struggled with the idea that masking through grade 6 would leave grades 7-8 without a masking mandate, although they share the same middle school building.

The vote - taken after lots of discussion - failed 4-2, with Scarbrough and Hawk Huard voting in favor, and Dave Battaglia, Ted Lammi, Nate Sandman and Melissa Juntunen voting against it.

"What we really want to prevent is going to distance learning, and if we can keep the spread down, I'd very much hope we are not going to distance learning. It isn't just about safety, it's about our mission," chair Ted Lammi said.

Board member Dave Battaglia agreed. He has consistently advocated for K-12 masking. "Last year we went from in-person, to hybrid, to distance learning. I'd hate to see that come back."

Lammi motioned for a vote to include universal masking indoors for grades K-12. Again, the masking requirement wouldn't apply to outdoor activities. It would, board members agreed, apply to indoor sports with the exception of girls swimming.

The K-12 masking requirement passed 4-2, with Lammi, Sandman, Battaglia and Juntunen voting yes, and Huard and Scarbrough voting no. The board also passed a motion asking the administration to develop guidelines for when the schools could exit the masking requirement, and another that implements the requirement when school starts on Sept. 7.

Asked after the vote, Cary said he thought masking would be "very strongly" recommended for the open house events scheduled before the start of school.

The masking requirements also would apply to all staff members in contact with students as well as visitors. As for concerns about especially younger children being able to see their teachers' mouths as they teach pronunciation, for example, union representative and Churchill music teacher Regina Roemhildt shared her personal experience.

"We are so aware of these kids and what's going on," she said, explaining how teachers can work around masks when it's necessary for teaching with shields, social distancing, etc. "I work with some fabulous people and we are conversing about how to help our kids and how to be better teachers all the time .... Remember, you've got really good people in your buildings."

Just like last year, other measures such as social distancing as much as possible and hand washing are also part of the pandemic precautions on the table in the district. Cary told the board the district is planning for lunch as normal this year: in the cafeteria, with masks removed for eating.

Other schools

Not every Carlton County school has made a decision regarding masks yet. Nearly every board has expressed frustration that the decision about medical health has been left up to local elected officials rather than the Minnesota Department of Health.

In Esko, board members set a special meeting for Monday, Aug. 30 to decide, because they wanted to wait for the most recent information on Covid cases in the area before voting. Carlton also has a board meeting set for Monday.

Moose Lake superintendent Billie Jo Steen said Wednesday that their school board decided Tuesday night "to recommend but not require masks" for the start of the school year with the understanding that if there is increased spread of Covid in the school or community, that requirement may change.

The Barnum school board heard a range of public comments and discussed masking at length at its last meeting Aug. 17, and plans to vote on masking and Covid precautions at a special meeting closer to the start of school on Aug. 31.

"Presidents and school boards have to make decisions based on imperfect data," Cloquet board chair Ted Lammi said after their vote Monday.

Tuition agreement

On Monday, Cloquet school board members formed a committee to continue meeting with Carlton school board members regarding a proposed tuition agreement for grades 9-12. In addition to Lammi - already part of the ongoing meetings - Scarbrough and Sandman volunteered to serve on the committee. Both superintendents and finance directors will continue to attend the meetings with the committees.