696: Masks are optional

Committee members lobby against campus-wide mandate

by Nick Wognum
The Ely school district will not mandate students to wear masks when the school year gets underway.
A decision was made Thursday and communicated to staff and students by school superintendent Erik Erie.
“Masks are recommended by MDE and MDH for all people in the school setting but are not required. This is subject to change and masks may be required in the future.
“Masks are recommended by MDE and MDH for extracurricular activities but are not required during active participation. This is subject to change and masks may be required in the future.
“Masks are required on all school vehicles per CDC and Minnesota Public Transportation Rules. All people riding school buses will be required to wear face coverings including all activities.”
The decision came two days after a school advisory committee meeting Tuesday, where sentiment leaned heavily against a campus-wide mask mandate when school resumes in Ely next month.
The Ely district convened its Safe Learning Plan Advisory Committee Tuesday, and masks were the overriding topic in the hour-long session.
The state has lifted its requirement that students and staff wear face coverings and is leaving the decisions to be made at a local level.
Several committee members weighed in during the meeting and spoke against a mask requirement.
“At this time going in my game plan would be whatever (the state) absolutely required I would do 100 percent,” said elementary principal Anne Oelke. “If they are not going to tell us to mask right now, I would say at this time they are not necessary.”
High school principal Megan Anderson offered a similar sentiment.
“I’m kind of in the same boat as far as recommendations versus requirements,” said Anderson.
School board member Tom Omerza said that communication to school board members overwhelmingly favored parental choice and making masks optional rather than required.
“I think every one to the school board has been ‘please let the parents decide,’” said Omerza. “I don’t recall one where there’s been ‘please mask everybody.’ It’s been ‘please give parents the opportunity to make the decision.’”
Many districts across the state are going the “mask optional” route to start the school year, including Hibbing, Chisholm, Esko, Mt. Iron-Buhl and the neighboring St. Louis County District, which operates schools in nearby Babbitt and Tower.
That’s in sharp contrast to the 2019-20 school year, when masks were mandated in schools by state edict.
Spurred by the Delta variant, COVID-19 cases have grown the last several weeks across the state but remain far below peak levels seen last fall, and remain below totals recorded during the spring.
In late-July, state officials announced they would not mandate masks but recommended use indoors while giving authority to local districts.
Jason Kelley, who heads a union who represents school staff members, said his colleagues were opposed to a return to mask wearing.
“From what I’m hearing from our staff as far as recommendations and mandates through the school, I know most of the employees I’ve spoke to, 100 percent are very reluctant to going back to wearing masks,” said Kelley.
Ruth Lah, an elementary school teacher, said instructors have not taken a formal position but added “I would rather wear a mask than distance learn.”
Superintendent Erik Erie told school board members the night before that a decision on Covid-related protocols, and presumably mask requirements if any, would be made during the week of Aug. 23.
Yet there was some push at the committee level to get the word out sooner.
“Are we going masks or no masks, are we distance learning of no distance learning,” said Oelke. “Those are the things everyone wants to know right now.”
Currently, there are no plans for distance learning in the Ely district and school is set to resume in-person on Tuesday, Sept. 7.
Last year, the Ely district switched learning models several times amid changing Covid case numbers, both locally and at the state level.
Gov. Tim Walz ordered all Minnesota districts into a distance learning model from late November into January, while a spike of Covid cases within the Ely school community prompted a three-week pause from late-March in to April.
Many other district protocols and restrictions were dictated by state mandate, including an indoor mask requirement that was in place the entire school year, as well as rules that covered everything from social distancing to quarantines.
Those mandates have all expired and Aubrey Hoover of St. Louis County Public Health said this week that it’s unlikely the state would reinstate mandates.
“They’re not likely to come up with requirements unless the governor does,”said Hoover.
Hoover added “right now schools have been put in a challenging position. Nothing is required or mandated. It’s up to each school to decide what to implement. You know your families. You know your community.”
Rather than a one size fits all response, districts are crafting their own plans, according to Hoover.
“Some schools are not requiring masks, not requiring contact tracing,” said Hoover. “Others are requiring contact tracing and masks.”
Some are also finding a middle road of sorts, perhaps requiring masks for two weeks in the event of a positive Covid case in a classroom.
Erie said “Ely is unique and we’re at the end of the road and we want to evaluate the data, look at the recommendations and come up with a plan that works for us.”
Hoover presented recent data including numbers that show recent growth in Covid cases in St. Louis County.
Erie added that “a spike may be the wrong word, but we’ve seen a rise in cases.”
In response to the data, high school athletic director Tom Coombe pointed out that despite the recent uptick, overall cases remain far below where they were at peak levels last fall, or even during the spring.
“Is it fair to say the overall prevalence is much, much, much less than it was a few months ago?” asked Coombe.
“I think that’s a fair statement,” Hoover responded.
Heather Holthaus, a nurse at Essentia Health, questioned some of the numbers and said activity at the clinic suggests a more dramatic upswing, but that could be attributed in part to positive cases among visitors to the area. All positive cases are recorded according to the person’s home address.
Local physician Joe Bianco said the conversation should extend beyond masks, making a passionate argument for vaccinations and their effectiveness.
“For the vaccinated, there has been great success in preventing serious illness,” said Bianco. “Those who are unvaccinated are at higher risk. There’s just no question.”
Bianco called vaccinations part of a “community obligation” and urged the school to promote vaccines to students, staff and families.
“I believe the school has an obligation as a center of science to promote vaccines for a return to normalcy,” said Bianco. “I think the school has to emphasize with its staff, with the parents. Say to parents ‘do you want things to get back to normal? Get vaccinated because it protects folks from the Delta variant.’ You might get sick, but it’s going to be like with what we’ve had with other respiratory viruses. Not serious illness or death.”
Bianco predicted that vaccines will be available for children between age 6-12 by late-October, which would open the opportunity for nearly all district students and staff to be vaccinated.
In the meantime, Bianco said decisions may need to be made while considering two separate populations at the school - those who are able to be vaccinated and those who are not.
“It’s different in the elementary,” said Bianco.
Hoover added that some districts are making Covid-related plans and policies with separate protocols for elementary and high school levels, or differing models for those vaccinated and unvaccinated.
Oelke questioned the latter, wondering about legal ramifications and noting that some students are currently not vaccinated against other diseases because of conscientious objection by families.
Hoover said some districts “work around” the issue by requiring masks, but then exempting those who provide proof of vaccination.
Bianco argued that those who have vaccinated “need to see some benefit” for “what to a degree is a sacrifice.”
“If they’re all lumped in to the same category with masking and a lack of activity I don’t feel that’s completely fair,” said Bianco.
Bianco cited sports and activities and exempting vaccinated participants from any mask requirements.
Coombe said indications from the Minnesota State High School League mirrored those coming from the Minnesota Department of Health, with high school sports not expected to be under a string of state mandates, as was done during 2019-20.
“There will be no mandates, no saying you have to do A, B and C,” said Coombe. “There will be some recommendations. We start practices Aug. 16 and my hope is that it’s a 100 percent return to normal, that our arenas, our g yms and our sidelines look like this room and look like they did in 2019.”
Omerza added he liked Bianco’s idea of giving credit or benefit to those who are vaccinated.
Oelke asked at the close of Tuesday’s session for more parent input, and Melissa Hart said she believed parents wanted some direction, and would be comfortable with change given the numerous adjustments that took place last year.
“Even if it does change, just something to come so we knows that its being thought out,” said Hart. “Just to have some direction so we know where it’s going and we can begin to plan.”
Coombe added “so much has changed since a year ago today, most notably 3.2 million Minnesotans have been vaccinated, 68 percent of those eligible in St. Louis County have been vaccinated. It’s not the same as it was a year ago. As a parent, my two cents would be recommendations and not requirements.”