School does 180 on masks

Masks will now be required

by Nick Wognum
The Ely school district did a 180 on mask protocols just days before students returned to class.
Citing new guidance, including a letter signed by physicians and a nurse practitioner at Ely’s Essentia Clinic, superintendent Erik Erie announced Sept. 3 that masks would be required indoors for all students, staff and visitors on the Ely campus.
Three weeks earlier, Erie and school officials had said masks would be recommended rather than required to start the new school year, and Ely is one of only a few schools in the area to require masks.
Several neighboring schools, including the County District 2142 schools in Babbitt and Tower, have gone the “mask optional” route. Unlike the 2020-21 school year, there is no state mandate for masks and local districts have the option to decide on their own.
Both the sudden mandate and the timing of the announcement resulted in a firestorm of criticism, including protests prior to the start of classes Tuesday, reports of numerous students entering the buildings without masks, as well as a petition drive aimed at reversing the mandate.
According to organizers, nearly 300 signatures had been gathered as of Thursday morning and the issue figures to be addressed at the school board’s regular session, set for 6 p.m. Monday.
At least so far, the district has not indicated how long the mask mandate will be in place, nor what data or metrics might be considered to end the requirement.
The controversy made for a rocky first week on the school campus, where officials have said publicly their hopes were for a “return to normal” after a 2020-21 school year that included a bevy of restrictions and several moves between on-campus and distance learning.
Most members of a school advisory committee opposed a mask mandate when the group met last month, and administrators said Aug. 12 that masks would be recommended rather than required.
Like most other rural districts, Ely was on track for a “mask optional” start to the school year and conducted a Sept. 2 open house where students, parents and staff, some with masks and most without, intermingled.
Less than 24 hours later came the announcement, just prior to the start of the Labor Day weekend.
Earlier this week, Erie released a letter that helped prompt the change, signed by physicians Joe Bianco, Mary Bianco, Joe Schwinghamer, James Montana, Jeff Wilt, Brielle Loe, Nick Cooley and nurse practitioner Peggy York-Jesme.
They said:
“Recently we were asked by a school board member to clarify the Essentia Health Ely providers position on masking and other practices for limiting the spread of Covid 19 in our school and community. As a group we are unanimously in support of the clear and unequivocal guidelines and recommendations from the CDC and MDH. In particular we strongly agree that everyone eligible should be vaccinated and that masking should be universal while indoors..”
They added that “We are concerned that if these recommendations are not followed our students, and the community as a whole, could suffer a severe outbreak of the highly infectious Delta Variant and potentially overwhelm local medical resources at a time when the state and regional health care providers are under enormous strain.”
Erie also pointed to similar correspondence from Essentia Health, which also urged districts to require masks.
Yet reaction to the edict came swiftly, with a petition drive launched within hours.
The petition was circulated on social media by high school student council president Micah Larson and said :
“We encourage all parents, grandparents, and extended family members, concerned community residents, taxpayers, and anyone else who wish to sign this if they desire to send a strong and clear message to the board and school administration.”
Petitioners were asked to agree that:
• Masking children should be the choice of the parent/guardian, and only the parent/guardian;
• The ISD #696 administration changing the reopening plan at 1:43pm on Friday, Sept. 3, is seen as misleading, considering that nobody was going to be in the office again until school started;
• The open house on Thursday, Sept. 2 raised families’ hopes of a normal school year, before crushing them the following afternoon;
• Science does not support the current requirements that ISD #696 has chosen to so hastily implement (see link below), and;
• Caving to local and state pressure over this issue was clearly a catalyst for this extremely late decision.
At Ely-Bloomenson Hospital, the administration responded to questions on the local Covid status.
In response to questions from the Echo, EBCH stated:
“COVID-19 preparedness has not changed at EBCH. Our COVID wing remains open, although we do not currently have any COVID-positive patients. The recent uptick in COVID positive patients that we experienced earlier in August has eased. However, we continue to test several people per day for various reasons, including symptomatic patients, exposed community members, and testing for travel purposes.
“At this time, EBCH is not experiencing any problems with capacity or staffing. Our average daily census and length of stay are trending slightly upward. These are not trends that we are worried about currently.
“Leadership from EBCH participants in several meetings each week with the Northeast Healthcare Preparedness Coalition, The MN Department of Health, and the MN Hospital Association. We remain vigilant and ready to accept lower acuity patients from other facilities should the need arise. We continue to encourage the community to follow the recommended COVID guidelines, including mask-up, wash your hands, social distance, stay home when you are sick, and get vaccinated if you are able.”
In response to the criticism over the mandate, Ely school administrators sent out another announcement Saturday morning, the day after the mask mandate was announced.
It stated:
Dear Families,
“We are very sorry for the last minute change in our Ely Schools Safe Reopen Plan. We received news late Thursday evening that prompted this change. While we wanted to get the message out to you as soon as possible, we’d like to take the opportunity to provide you with additional information regarding our decision.”
The second announcement included information about the statement from Essentia Health as well as the correspondence from local doctors.
The administrators wrote:
“As an administrative team, we have always worked to follow the guidelines provided by MDE, MDH, CDC, and our local medical professionals.
“This virus is ever-changing and we are constantly monitoring and modifying our plans. We know this is an inconvenience and everyone wants life to get back to normal, especially in the school setting. We are hopeful this is a speed bump along the path towards a more normal 2021-2022 school year.”