Mask mandate under fire

As other districts change course, committee to reconvene

by Tom Coombe
After first indicating they’d wait a month, Ely school officials are set to determine the fate of the district’s indoor mask mandate.
A special meeting of the school’s safe learning advisory committee has been called for Tuesday at 3:30 p.m., when an end to the year-long mandate figures to be the only issue up for debate.
The meeting, which may lead to a recommendation for school board action, comes amid public pressure to end the forced masking policy, and while mask mandates at numerous other schools are going by the wayside.
Monday night, when school board members in Ely indicated they’d wait until Mar. 14 to address the issue, school board members at the newly-formed Rock Ridge district in Virginia and Eveleth rescinded their mask mandate.
Cloquet also ditched its mask policy the same night, as did a slew of other districts across Minnesota and following similar action in many other states.
As of Wednesday, Hibbing and Ely were the only Iron Range districts to still require masks while numerous others, including schools at Babbitt, Tower, Cook and Aurora, have gone the entire year without a mask edict.
School board members were largely silent on the issue at Monday’s meeting, although they heard from three parents who requested an immediate end to the mandate.
“We need a reasonable end date,” said parent Devon Luthens, a member of the safe learning advisory group. “Waiting until March 14 is unacceptable. We’ve been waiting since Sept. 7 for this mask mandate to be lifted. Asking us for more time is just a slap in the face.”
Luthens added “we continue to watch our neighboring school districts demonstrate success without mandates in place,” and suggested that high vaccination rates among staff and high school students, combined with over 200 cases reported during the school year, have led to more immunity on campus.
Ely children are masking in no other settings, Luthens told the board, and she pressed for the district to justify its rules and consider adverse affects of masking.
“Why do we continue to subject our children to masking when we do not have data that it’s working,” she said.
A similar charge was leveled by Ely area resident Frank Udovich, who has addressed the board several times since September about the mandate.
“I can not understand why we are masking children after all the data,” said Udovich. “The numbers from masking policies and masking optional policies has been almost identical.”
Udovich charged the mandate is instead being driven by politics.
“From what I’ve seen it’s become almost cult-like and religious,” said Udovich.
He added “there’s a vaccine, there’s great therapeutics. There’s no excuse other than power and fear.”
Anthony Bermel told the board that the “drawbacks of masking are the very sole reason we are home-schooling our three girls.“
Bermel, who also addressed the board previously in opposition to the mandate also pointed to the shifting tide related to Covid-19 restrictions across the nation.
“A lot has changed over the last months but the Ely schools are stuck in the status quo at the expense of students and families,” said Bermel.
Bermel charged that there’s much “hypocrisy” over masking, pointing to last Sunday’s Super Bowl and televised images of thousands of maskless fans as well as celebrities, despite a mask mandate inside the stadium.
He added “I’m guessing most of you are not masking in your work.”
The mask mandate was not on Monday’s agenda and there were no attempts from the floor to bring it up for discussion.
But new interim superintendent John Klarich, who joined the district Jan. 31 and was in just his seventh day on the job on Monday, addressed it briefly during a safe learning plan update.
Klarich said he wasn’t ready yet to make a recommendation on masks, adding he’s heard from residents as well as representatives of state and regional entities.
“I’m too new to this district, to Ely, to make a recommendation,” said Klarich. “To try to change all the protocols put in place in the past, I’m not saying they’re right or wrong I’m not judging anything, but it’s too soon for me to make a recommendation.”
Klarich said “I asked the board if they could hold off a little bit. I need time to catch up on it.”
He conceded that “I realize that some of you are at wit’s end and want to see a change. Some of the science is behind you and some of the science goes the opposite way.”
Klarich said he anticipated “a very robust discussion (with the safe learning plan advisory council) on where we are going to go, and what are the thoughts and is there a recommendation to change the protocols in place.”
At the time, Klarich anticipated that discussion would take place Mar. 7, but the morning following the meeting, and in the wake of the mask decision at Rock Ridge, school officials opted to move the advisory council meeting up by nearly two weeks.
That decision comes with numerous schools across the state and nation shedding their mask required policies, while the cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis as well as the University of Minnesota moved to eliminate vaccine requirements for restaurants, bars and large gatherings. The city of Duluth also allowed citywide indoor mask mandate to expire.
Those developments came amid steep declines in Covid-19 infections across the nation, including in Minnesota and St. Louis County.
Under the current Ely school safe learning plan, masks would no longer be required on campus once the Ely zip code moves out of a “high” Covid-19 transmission mode, as designated by federal Center for Disease Control guidelines, for three consecutive weeks.
That’s defined as six or fewer cases per week among Ely zip code residents, but recent local case rates have been much higher, with 30 or more cases in eight of the last 13 weeks.
Ever since the school district adopted the mask mandate just prior to the start of the school year, the issue has sparked differing views and at-times contentious debate.
The decision led to a petition signed by more than 300 opponents and vehement vocal opposition at a Sept. 13 board meeting that was moved to the gymnasium to accommodate an audience of about 250 people.
Numerous other area districts, including the St. Louis County District with nearby schools in Babbitt, Tower and Cook, have not required masks all year. Others in the area without mask mandates include Mesabi East, Mt. Iron-Buhl and Chisholm, with Rock Ridge joining that group earlier this week.
In October, the Ely board rolled back part of its mandate - exempting after-school activities and allowing participants as well as spectators to be unmasked for indoor athletic events.