Mask marker: 1 in 2000?

School floats threshold for easing mandate: any more than three local cases in week would require continued masking in district

by Nick Wognum
Four positive cases of Covid-19 in the Ely zip code during a one-week period would be enough to require masks in the Ely School District, according to a plan set to be considered by school board members.
As they address when and how to roll back a controversial indoor mask mandate, school officials have discussed an array of potential metrics and thresholds, and appear to be zeroing in on a plan offered in late-October by local physician Joe Bianco.
The key provision in the plan is to use federal Center for Disease Control guidelines related to what the agency terms as “moderate” transmission of Covid-19.
If the school were to adopt the plan, the mask requirement would ease only when Covid case rates drop below one in 2000 per week, for three consecutive weeks.
The plan, which was endorsed by school administrators, was met with mixed reaction at the Oct. 28 meeting of the school district’s safe learning plan advisory council.
That group was set to hold further discussion and a school board vote could come as soon as Monday night, at a meeting slated for 6 p.m. at the high school.
A week earlier, advisory council members advanced a different set of metrics, including provisions that matched what the Rock Ridge (Virginia/Eveleth) district is using to consider rolling back its mandate.
If Ely adopted those metrics, the mask mandate would be lifted if there were fewer than 10 local cases per week for two consecutive weeks.
Bianco argued those numbers are “arbitrary” and that would place the community in a “high” transmission designation when it comes to CDC guidelines.
“You have to get down to three people within the week, that’s when you get into the moderate category and that’s reasonable,” said Bianco. “I get it. It feels restrictive, but that’s where the science is. You’re going to have to be accountable as a group, if you do something different, to say this is why we chose something different.”
Melissa Hart, a parent on the advisory council, said “I think the three number is very low.”
“All it would take is one family to get Covid and all of the school would be back to wearing masks,” said Hart. “Three for the whole 55731 zip code seems low to me.”
Tom Coombe, the high school’s athletic director and a member of the advisory council added “it seems like we are moving inches when we need to move a mile.”
If the school board were to adopt the measures discussed by the council at their Oct. 21 session, the Memorial Building would be on track to remove the mask mandate, given cases of eight and seven the previous two weeks.
For now, metrics and thresholds have only focused on the Memorial Building, with council members opting to wait to suggest removing the mask mandate at Washington Elementary until those children have had the opportunity to receive vaccinations.
Also at issue are the number of data points that would prompt a change, with administrators now suggesting that the district go at least three weeks below a desired threshold before easing the mandate.
“Public health and our medical professionals would like to see our school have moderate transmission for three weeks to be a marker for us,” said elementary principal Anne Oelke.
While some on the council have looked to health officials for guidance and recommendations, others have countered that Ely remains very restrictive - when it comes to mask mandates - in relation to neighboring schools.
“Despite all the recommendations, you have people at different ends of the spectrum on masking,” said superintendent Erik Erie,
Several area schools, including the St. Louis County District campuses of Babbitt, Tower, Cook, Cherry and South Ridge, as well as Mesabi East, Chisholm, Mt. Iron-Buhl and Nashwauk-Keewatin have no mask requirement.
The Lake Superior District, which operates schools at Silver Bay and Two Harbors, requires masks in their elementary schools but not in the high schools, while Rock Ridge, Hibbing, Cook County and International Falls require masks.
Only Ely and Rock Ridge appear to have addressed metrics for easing their mandates, with Rock Ridge identifying a standard far less strict than what was discussed by the advisory council last week
Tom Omerza, who represents the school board on the advisory council, said he’d like to see Ely “keep it simple, so everybody can get their arms around it and understand what we want and where we want to be to get to masks recommended.”
The role of the council also was addressed last week, with Erie noting “we don’t do things democratically,” and indicated the group is in place to discuss proposals formed by administrators.
“We don’t vote but we try to get a consensus,” said Erie. “We come to the advisory council with some ideas and recommendations and try to get input.”
Board members have pressed for a plan to move forward in the wake of public pushback against a mandate announced just before the start of the school year, after the district had first announced that masks would be optional.
The advisory council has addressed the issue for several weeks, and the dueling plans addressed last week evolved from proposals to consider several metrics, including vaccination rates among students.
The vaccination metric met opposition, including at the board table and was removed from consideration at the Oct. 21 advisory council session.
Bianco told school board members last month that an 80 percent vaccination rate in the schools would remove, but conceded it’s probably not achievable because of resistance. He suggested using other metrics in dialing back the mandate, focusing on positivity rate and case numbers, with additional safety valves in case of an outbreak within the school or if local medical resources were being stretched.
Schools have significant leeway to set their own standards, in sharp contrast to a year ago, when measures related to quarantines and masking were dictated by the state.
“Last year we just had rules,” said Oelke. “Now I’m not a medical professional so I would weigh heavily on the medical profession.”
Earlier this month, school board members stripped superintendent Erik Erie of his authority to make changes in the safe learning plan and reclaimed power over those moves.
The board also changed the makeup of the advisory council, moving to add more parents to the group, and approved an administrative recommendation that the mask mandate for spectators be lifted for indoor extra-curricular activities.