Editorial: School must live up to promises, establish plan to end mask mandate

Amid an uprising if not a revolt - one that led to the most contentious and crowded school board meeting in recent history - Ely school officials have pledged repeatedly that a controversial mask mandate is only temporary.
Consider these words: first, a letter to parents a day after the forced masking rule was announced and with public backlash already growing.
Ely school administrators wrote “ We are hopeful this is a speed bump along the path towards a more normal 2021-2022 school year.”
Five days later, at the first meeting of the fall of Ely’s Safe Learning Plan Advisory Council, superintendent Erik Erie said ‘Nobody wants to be wearing a mask. The big question is what is it going to take to change?” He went on to suggest possible “incremental” changes in the mandate.
Finally, at the school board meeting itself, dominated by opponents of the forced masking rule, longtime school board chairman Ray Marsnik said of the mandate: “Hopefully we will be able to lift it in a short period of time.”
Yet now, nearly three weeks after the mandate was announced, there has been nothing in the way of specifics about an issue so controversial the regular board meeting - which on a good month atttracts about 15 people - brought more than 250 to the school campus.
It’s long past time for school officials to back up their words, to show they’re serious about addressing the issue and come up with a plan to bring the mandate to an end..
The easiest solution is to go back to what was originally proposed - before the 11th-hour switch that even school officials now admit was ill-timed - and go the “mask optional” route.
That’s what most nearby schools are doing, and makes sense given the district’s small enrollment. Crowded classrooms are hard to find and there are reports of elementary class sections with barely more than a dozen kids.
But as the district digs in its heels, a complete about-face seems unlikely so the next-best bet is a process for discarding the masks for once and for all.
If they won’t follow the lead of our neighboring districts, school officials have other, data-driven models to go by when considering masks on the school campus.
Consider Anoka-Hennepin, the state’s largest school district.
Rather than a one size fits all approach, that district is recommending rather than requiring masks for those in grades 7-12, and has adopted clear guidelines for when it would mandate masks for those students and staff inside its grades K-6 building.
At Anoka-Hennepin, indoor masking kicks in for the elementary schools only when local case levels are greater than 15 per 10,000. What was Ely’s most recent rate? 11.27.
Closer to home, in Hermantown, the masks are simply recommended in the middle and high schools and required for “age 2 through 6th grade at 25 (cases) per 10,000 people.”
Another school - Centennial in the Twin Cities suburbs - has come up with a plan that ties masks directly to COVID outbreaks within its walls.
That district “will require masks for students and staff in a school that is at or above a five percent COVID-19 positivity rate and in Pre-K through grade 6 classrooms when there is one or more cases.”
What do all three of those districts have that Ely doesn’t?
For starters, all have made masks optional rather than mandatory in their high school buildings.
All have specific criteria for when masks would be required in the elementary schools and Centennial forces masks only if five percent of its high school contracts COVID-19.
These are all districts with much larger student populations, more population density and far more crowded campuses. Yet none have gone to the extremes of Ely District 696.
If Ely was following the data-driven approaches of any of these districts, there would have only been narrow instances where mask requirements would have kicked in so far this school year.
There has been talk, even recommendations by a local physician, of a more “nuanced approach” to mask rules.
School officials have talked vaguely about “lower numbers” and vaccination rates when asked about criteria for ending the mandate but there have been no specifics.
That’s simply not enough, and not acceptable.
There need to be answers rather than generaliities and cold shoulders when people ask “what’s the plan?’
Sooner, rather than later, the district must come up with realistic, data-driven measures to return to what district administrators and school board members say they want: a normal school year without masks.
The wheel doesn’t need to be reinvented. Weeks or months of study aren’t necessary. Models exist that can be adopted in Ely in short order, as soon as this week. The school board has already given administration authority to change on the fly.
It’s past time for the school district to live up to its own words, and acknowledge the unrest that was created by an ill thought out decision to force masks upon everyone on campus, creating a firestorm that only grew at the school board meeting earlier this month.
The clock is ticking and the ball is clearly in the district’s court. Either they mean what they say and want a means to end the mask mandate, or their recent words and promises ring hollow.