Masks at school, but for how long?

Erie says mandate will be recommended for another week as district explores potential exit criteria

by Nick Wognum
A controversial K-12 mask mandate was the dominat topic at a school safety advisory council session Thursday, with administrators defending its implmentation while also promising to explore how to bring it to an end.
Superintendent Erik Erie told council members that administrators would recommend that the mandate, which started when school began Tuesday, continue at least another week.
He also acknowledged growing public criticism over the requirement, including a petition signed by nearly 300 area residents, and said school leaders would consult with health officials to come up with a plan for easing the restrictions.
“Nobody wants to be wearing a mask,” said Erie. “The big question is what is it going to take to change from mask on to mask off. We don’t have all the answers yet.”
Erie added “we’re hearing from the community, certainly with the petition.”
“People want to know what we’re doing and why,” said Erie. “That message certainly came through.”
Petitioners are expected to address school board members Monday, during their regular monthly session.
Erie offered no specifics for ending the mandate, but floated an idea that “it may be incremental,” perhaps ending the requirement in the Memorial (grades 6-12) Building first or tying it to data, perhaps vaccination rates.
School officials have asked St. Louis County to determine what percentage of the student body had been vaccinated.
The hourlong meeting also revealed a faculty divide over the mandate, with high school teacher Tim Omerza citing a survey that showed a nearly even split over the rule.
According to Omerza, 12 teachers indicated in the survey that “everybody should wear masks until COVID-19 danger has clearly passed,” while 11 favored a mask-optional route.
Jason Kelley, who represents school staff on the committee said “a lot of staff are disappointed about wearing masks. It was unexpected.”
But amid the angst, school officials defended a decision that came Sept. 3, just four days before the start of school and the day after a mask-optional open house in both school buildings.
“It was a difficult decision to make given the timing and with schools starting on Tuesday,” said Erie.
Erie said it was triggered by several factors, including correspondence from several local physicians.
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..”
Erie said the letter followed similar correspondence from Essentia Health, and amid data showing “high transmission” rates of COVID-19 in St. Louis County.
“Friday morning we came together as an administration team and discussed what we should do,” said Erie. “Do we ignore all these recommendations or do we take action to protect our students and our community, as was advocated by the health care professionals.... The timing for all of us was frustrating.”
While COVID-19 transmission remains far below peak levels last fall and remain short of peaks reached during a spring wave, case numbers and hospitalizations jumped in August.
Fueled by the highly contagious Delta variant, the county recorded over 982 cases in August - nearly four times as many as the month before but well short of the 6,000-plus recorded last November, or nearly 1,500 in April.
Hospitalizations jumped to 72, on par with a spring wave but far behind the highs of late-2020.
Locally, four new COVID-19 cases were reported this week and five the week before.
That makes for a zip code two-week case rate of 14.50, which would bring an end to a school mask mandate if Ely followed criteria used by the state’s largest district: Anoka-Hennepin.
One case was reported at Washington Elementary on Wednesday, but Erie added “we went all summer without a positive case and we had a lot of people around here, a lot of employees and a lot of construction workers and a robust summer school program.”
Aubrie Maki of St. Louis County Public Health told school officials that Ely may be a “trend setter” when it comes to mask mandates, noting that Hibbing enacted a similar K-12 mandate this week.
Most other area schools, including the neighboring County 2142 District schools at Tower and Babbitt, do not require masks.
At least for now, the mandate has not affected school activities.
Athletic Director Tom Coombe said the mandate nas no impact on football and cross country, which are held outdoors, as well as the girls swimming program operated out of Babbitt.
Ely’s volleyball team has continued to play and practice without masks, although it’s unclear to what extent, if at all, masks would be required when the volleyball team has its next home match.
Coombe has recommended that athletic events remain “mask optional” for both spectators and participants.
Tiffany Zemke of Ely-Bloomenson Community Hospital also spoke during Wednesday’s session and identified a series of concerns brought by people to hospital officials.
Those included the timing of the mandate as well as concerns with how maskes are used by young people.
“I understand masks can be good, but it really depends on how you wear them,” she said.
Zemke recommended that cloth masks be cleaned daily and that children avoid touching their masks.
“If they’re not doing good hand hygiene, it increases spread and could be more problematic,” said Zemke.