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Votes on school masks are mixed

 

September 3, 2021



With Covid-19 infections ramping up but no state of emergency in Minnesota or nationally, decisions on how to keep kids safe at school this fall have been left up to local school boards.

It hasn’t been easy. Masks have become controversial, with some residents asking boards to simply recommend rather than require them, while others say they won’t send their unvaccinated children to school if they aren’t required. It’s also a different time in the pandemic, because people can be vaccinated, which was not the case last fall.

According to its most recent recommendations, the CDC recommends universal indoor masking “by all students (age 2 and older), staff, teachers, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status” because of the highly contagious Delta variant. On the other hand, parents argue that wearing masks is damaging to their children’s emotional and social development and/or physical health.

Those pleas have not fallen on deaf ears at local school board meetings. Elected officials and the superintendents who advise them have tried to look at all sides of the issue and deferred their decisions until now, waiting to see what direction the Covid rates were headed, which was up. Covid infections have continued to rise in recent weeks, driven by the highly contagious Delta variant.

As a result, many Carlton County schools are mandating masks for elementary school children and staff, because kids ages 11 and younger are not yet eligible to be vaccinated for Covid-19. There are exceptions: masks are optional at Moose Lake, Wrenshall and Cromwell-Wright schools for now.

On the other end of the spectrum, the K-12 Fond du Lac Ojibwe school has never ceased requiring masks on school grounds, and the Cloquet school board voted to require masks for staff and students at all grade levels when they return to school next week.

Because masking is a federal requirement on all public transportation, everyone is required to mask on school buses.

Find details below from this week’s round of school board meetings, all held specifically to address Covid-19 health and safety measures for the school year.

Carlton

At a short special meeting Monday, the Carlton school board approved a Covid-19 preparedness plan that includes a mask requirement for all students and staff at its two schools, tied to case levels.

Superintendent John Engstrom told the board that “the data doesn’t lie” when it comes to case counts in the county. He said case levels are 84 percent higher than they were last year at this time, when masks were required as the district started the year with in-school classes.

He said medical advice provided to Carlton County districts swayed his opinion toward a mask policy.

Carlton’s mask requirement is based on local Covid case levels as reported by the Minnesota Department of Health. The latest county number was at 21 (per 10,000 people) but moved to 27 this week. The policy approved Monday states that case levels above 15 at the South Terrace elementary school will trigger a mask mandate. That number is 20 for the middle/high school, since most students there will have the added protection of vaccinations.

Carlton school board members Sue Karp and Tim Hagenah said it was a relief that the mask mandate, under local authority, can change depending on the level of Covid cases. The new protocols passed on a 3-2 vote. Karp, Hagenah and chairwoman Julianne Emerson voted to approve the plan.

Ann Gustafson, a teacher who says masks have proven difficult to deal with in the classroom, voted no. She suggested teachers be allowed to take masks off during instruction time. Engstrom said that would be “setting us up for failure” in trying to get everyone to comply with masking. It’s easier to say “we’re all doing it,” he said.

Eryn Szymczak also voted no. Board member Sam Ojibway was not at the meeting.

Wrenshall

Despite the growing case numbers and the medical advice urging mask use, the Wrenshall district will make use optional in the school. That school board decision came Tuesday night after more than two hours of discussion at a special meeting that included comments from parents, staff and others. There were about 20 people in the audience.

Should the case rate among those in the school building rise above 5 percent, or about 20 people infected with Covid, a mask requirement would go into effect. That’s part of an overall “Back to School Safe Plan” the board approved.

Overall, board members mostly agreed that the goal is to keep students in classrooms this year and parents need to make the choice on whether their children wear masks or not.

Board member Misty Bergman dominated most of the meeting with her doubts about the effectiveness of masks and the seriousness of the pandemic. “I know some people are scared to death of this,” she said of the Covid-19 virus, but “our children are not being affected by this.” She went on to call mask wearing “child abuse” and “not healthy.”

Bergman questioned a physician’s assistant, with children in the district, who has seen children admitted to the Duluth hospital where he works. “The strong survive,” Bergman said.

“It’s not about thinning the herd,” Janaki Fisher-Merritt said. The former school board member said masks are just another tool the district can use, like better air handling systems and distancing. “The school district doesn’t live in a bubble,” he said, reminding the board that kids can bring Covid home and affect the routines and livelihoods of families.

Fisher-Merritt said many parents were surprised that the district was straying from policies that worked last spring when on-site classes resumed.

Bergman said people can wear masks if it makes them feel “warm and fuzzy” but that they are ineffective and “we have the right to breathe.”

There were smatterings of applause when people spoke on both sides of the mask issue Tuesday.

The behavior of a school board member who wasn’t named is now part of an ethics investigation instigated after an emergency board meeting Wednesday. See story on Page 3.

School principal Michelle Blanchard echoed comments Tuesday from others about being respectful about people’s choices on wearing masks, saying she will be wearing one in the building when classes start next week. Board chairman Jack Eudy said that while mask wearing will be up to parents and students, “don’t criticize those wearing a mask,” it’s “uncalled for” and should be considered “scolding” and “bullying.”

Esko

Esko will require students in grades 6 and below to be masked at school, along with faculty and staff for those grades. For students in grades 7-12, masks are optional.

The school board met in a special meeting Monday and unanimously authorized superintendent Aaron Fischer to implement changes to the pandemic protocol as the data on Covid-19 fluctuates; if the board disagrees with his decisions, an emergency board meeting can be set within 3 days. “We want our kids onsite; and their safety and health is a top priority,” Fischer told the board. “Most students over 12 years old are vaccinated, so this protocol makes sense. Frankly, I was hoping we would not even be discussing Covid this year, but here we are,” he said. Six residents spoke at the meeting after the board voted; they were evenly divided between pro- and anti-masks. Fischer said that masks are only one part of the safety protocol; cleaning and sanitation and quarantine policies also are part of the plan. He also noted that masks will be required of all students riding the bus; that is a federal requirement and applies to all public transportation.

Barnum

Barnum school board members voted in a special meeting Tuesday to require masks for all students, staff and visitors to the elementary school and “strongly encourage” the same groups to wear masks at the high school, regardless of vaccination status. Additionally, the board recommends everyone follow the same preventive measures as last year, including physical distancing, handwashing, covering coughs, cleaning and disinfection, testing, contact tracing and staying home when sick, referring to CDC guidelines for Covid prevention in K-12 schools.

The board resolution also stated if the district has a student/staff Covid test positive rate of 5 percent or higher, masking will be required at the high school for at least two weeks and until the rate drops below 5 percent.

Barnum also outlined quarantine measures for the 2021-22 school year:

Scenario No. 1: Unvaccinated AND unmasked = 14-day quarantine

Scenario No. 2: Unvaccinated AND masked = No quarantine

Scenario No. 3: Vaccinated AND NO mask = No quarantine (A nurse will verify vaccine status of students on a case-by-case basis.)

Other measures included maintaining at least 3 feet of spacing in all areas when feasible and contact tracing if circumstances require. There will be no group-size limits for gatherings, including assemblies and concerts.

However, the board gave superintendent Mike McNulty authority, “after consultation with the school board chair and notification to the school board,” to select and implement different health and safety measures for the school district if needed.

 
 

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