Mask off moment at 696

School board to vote on repeal of controversial mandate

by Tom Coombe
Ely’s school mask mandate could soon be over.
At a special meeting on Monday, school board members are set to consider a recommendation that the year-long mandate be rescinded.
Interim superintendent John Klarich presented the plan earlier this week to members of the school district’s safe learning advisory committee, and said it was time that Ely District 696 join most other area districts and make masking in school voluntary rather than required.
“We’re one of the last schools to have a mask policy in place,” said Klarich. “I think it’s time for the school board to vote.”
Klarich cited local, state and national trends showing declines in Covid-19 prevalence as well as a growing list of entities that are easing mask requirements.
That includes most of the schools in northeastern Minnesota, and Klarich conceded that recent action by Rock Ridge (Virginia/Eveleth) and Cloquet to go mask-optional helped spur his recommendation to act now.
Klarich had told board members Feb. 14 that he’d like to wait a month to take action, but said movement by Rock Ridge and Cloquet “threw a little bit of a curve ball” at those plans and prompted him to reconvene the advisory group.
Since then, Klarich said he has also spoken to school officials at Hibbing and International Falls, where mask mandates may also be repealed.
“That was a big turn for me from the board meeting last week,” said Klarich. “Now we’re almost an island standing alone.”
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.
If the board adopts Klarich’s recommendation, the requirement could seemingly end as soon as Tuesday, nearly six months after it was adopted.
Advisory committee members, divided for much of the year over the mask mandate, remained so over the proposal although they have no formal authority and don’t vote on administrative recommendations.
Amy Kromer, a parent representative on the committee, pushed back at the plan.
“I just don’t know what the rush is,” said Kromer.
Kromer suggested the district follow metrics adopted by the school board in December, which called for the district to move to optional masking once Covid-19 cases in the Ely area move from “high” to “substantial” as categorized by the federal Center for Disease Control, for three consecutive weeks.
Those metrics would require six or fewer cases of Covid-19 among Ely area residents each week, far fewer than recent averages which included a January peak of more than 50 in one week and 20 or more cases in 11 of the last 12 weeks.
Klarich questioned if those numbers were attainable and pointed to recent declines in Covid cases, including substantial state and countywide drops in the last several weeks.
“No doubt there’s a trend going down,” said Klarich. “I just personally feel it’s time to open up again. That’s my opinion. The numbers are coming down and in some cases substantially.“
He added the recommendation is based on “seeing most of the school districts in Minnesota open up.”
Kromer wasn’t convinced and said “nothing has changed” since metrics were adopted two months ago and pressed for the district to heed the recommendations of local medical professionals and the CDC.
Another parent member, Michael Smith, questioned the recommendation and said “it seems like a little bitty of an easy way out to change the numbers.”
Another parent member of the advisory group, Devon Luthens, endorsed the plan to end the mask mandate and said students who choose to “can still wear a mask,” and be protected, given research showing the benefits of “one-way masking.”
Luthens was one of three people to address the school board Feb. 14 and ask for a more immediate end to the mandate.
Aubrie Hoover of St. Louis County Public Health participated in the advisory meeting and reported a steep drop in Covid activity in the county, including 136 active cases among public school students, down from a January peak of better than 900.
Hoover also rattled off other statistics showing that Covid-19 was rapidly decreasing, but cautioned “the numbers are moving in the right direction, but there’s still a fair amount of Covid in our area.”
Hoover acknowledged that other districts with mask mandates were dialing back, and said some schools were retaining the option to reinstate masking for individual classrooms in the case of a Covid outbreak.
She said it was unlikely that the CDC would end its current guidance calling for universal masking in public school settings, even though an increasing amount of schools are casting that guidance aside.
School board member Tom Omerza said he was confident that district administrators could provide direction should Covid flare-ups occur, hailing them for “doing a great job of addressing positive cases.”
High school principal Megan Anderson said there were only three positive cases among students and staff, a steep drop from early-January when as many as 46 cases were active at one time within the school district.
Since the start of the school year, the district has had 220 positive cases, more than four times as many as in 2020-21.
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.
Klarich told the group that he was “not against any thing that was decided prior to this, but I think it’s time (to change).”
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 month.
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.