Board seeks mask clarity

Colarich suggests change in process, metrics sought to end mandate

by Tom Coombe
Amid public backlash over an indoor mask mandate, school board members in Ely are wrestling with their role in the decision-making process and measures that would define when the mandate will end.
A board study session on Monday honed in on the recent controversy with member Tom Omerza pressing for the district to better define metrics that would be used to determine if masks will be required on campus.
Member Tony Colarich went further, asking that the board vote to reclaim its authority over changes to the district’s safe learning plan as soon as Oct. 11, when members hold their next regular session.
Board chairman Ray Marsnik also said he wanted to clear the air over rumors on social media that the district would require students to receive the Covid-19 vaccine.
“There’s a rumor going around that we plan on mandating vaccinations,” said Marsnik. “That has never been in any discussions.”
Superintendent Erik Erie told the board that he doesn’t expect any imminent change in the “masks required” recommendation, pointing to rising case totals in the northern half of St. Louis County
“I don’t see anything coming real soon,“ said Erie.
Monday marked the first time the board gathered since a contentious regular meeting two weeks earlier, when more than 250 people filled the school’s gymnasium, the vast majority opposed to a mandate announced just days before the school year began.
As they did a year ago, board members authorized Erie to make changes to the district’s safe learning plan, but Colarich said at the study session that it’s time the board vets recommendations and votes on them.
“To me it’s good policy, the board would be making the call on these decisions and we’d be voting on it,” said Colarich.
Colarich added “my conversation is not directed against the superintendent.”
Meanwhile, school officials are exploring what measures to use to roll back mitigation efforts.
There was initial conversation at a Sept. 23 meeting of the Ely Safe Learning Plan Advisory Council, including an example of measures and thresholds used by the Lake Superior School District.
Further talks are expected at an ESLPAC meeting held Thursday, just after the Echo’s deadline, but Omerza said the district needs to come up with more specifics.
“We need to push who we are listening to and say ‘hey we need to give some direction here,‘“ said Omerza.
Omerza said “I think the perception out there is we are masked we are just going to be masked the whole year.”
“I think we need to press to try and come up with metrics, and not go week over week over week of just being fuzzy with things,” said Omerza.
Board member Hollee Coombe agreed and said the district could have differing rules between the respective school buildings, as well as for indoor athletics and activities.
“I think we can have two separate plans, maybe three if you want to throw sports in there,” said Coombe. “Right now, none of the children in Washington are eligible for vaccination where in this (Memorial) building a very large majority are eligible.”
Erie said that current data shows that 41 percent of the students in the Memorial are vaccinated, and added that his comfort level with removing the mask requirement would grow with increased vaccinations.
“If we can work around the vaccination rate, whatever is recommended, say we get to 70 percent vaccinated, or 55 percent vaccinated, whatever the number is,” said Coombe. “I think it’s OK to have separate plans for the separate buildings and I think we need to come up with a plan that we can work toward, whether it’s vaccination rates, case numbers, where families can follow along and know what’s coming next.”
Erie said he has been unable to get a precise recommendation from health officials on thresholds that might be needed to remove the mask requirement.
“They don’t have a magic number,” said Erie.
He added there is more comfort when case rates are below 20 per 10,000 people, but how that fits into Ely’s determination hinges on what numbers are used.
According to local 55731 zip code data, Ely’s rate was just under 18 per 10,000 as of Sept. 23, but rates in Northern St. Louis County were expected to top 65 this week, according to Erie.
Both the local and northern county numbers were in the single digits for much of the summer.
Erie told the board “we’re not alone” in dealing with mask issues.
Ely joins Cook County, Hibbing and Rock Ridge (Virgina/Eveleth) among area schools in requiring masks for all students and staff indoors. The Rock Ridge board voted 5-4 Tuesday night to implement a mask mandate.
Several other schools, including the St. Louis County District schools at Babbitt and Tower, as well as Mesabi East and Mt. Iron-Buhl, do not require masks. A push to implement a mask mandate at Chisholm failed earlier this week.
While masks were required across the state during the 2020-21 school year, the state is not imposing a mask mandate this year and is instead leaving the decision up to local districts.
“We are not alone in doing that but there are others who have not gone to masks,” said Erie.
Also Monday, the board reviewed the latest revisions to the district’s safe learning plan.
The district plans to coordinate another on-site vaccination clinic yet this fall.
During the Sept. 23 ESLPAC session, local physician Joe Bianco promoted vaccination as a key component to combat Covid-19 and said local health officials would “bend over backwards” to accommodate vaccinating Ely students.
“It’s really important,” said Bianco. “We’ll do anything at any time for a student to get their vaccination.”
Bianco added that health officials are doing “a lot of work to dispel the myths around vaccination.”
“It’s probably safer than taking an aspirin,” said Bianco.
Bianco said vaccinations “make a difference in transmission and also the prevention of serious illness. Nothing has changed in that regard.”
During the ESLPAC meeting, Bianco also helped school officials better define close contacts in the safe learning plan, indicating that to be determined a close contact, someone must be less than six feet away from a Covid-positive person for 15 minutes or more.
“Somebody might have just talked to a person outside at a football game and the next day they have Covid - that’s not a close contact,” said Bianco.
In sharp contrast to a year ago, when entire class sections or grade levels were quarantined because of a positive case, the quarantine rules are far less stringent this year.
In the event of a positive case in the Memorial Building, the student or staff member must stay home for 10 days but others are not required to.
If more than one positive case is confirmed in a Memorial classroom, the Minnesota Department of Health will be consulted to determine if quarantine for broader groups is necessary.
In the elementary school, if more than one case is reported in a classroom within a week, the entire class will go to distance learning via Google Classroom.
Household contacts face quarantine restrictions in relation to attending school, but those who are vaccinated and exposed do not need to quarantine if they do not show symptoms.