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The Anoka-Hennepin School District will continue to require masks in elementary schools. (File photo by Paige Kieffer)

The Anoka-Hennepin School District will continue a districtwide mask mandate in elementary schools due to high absence rates among students and staff as the omicron variant of the novel coronavirus surges in Minnesota.

The continuance comes less than a month after the district announced plans to base mask requirements on school or classroom data rather than county data. It has used county-level data for masking requirements since the beginning of the school year and was set to use school-level data beginning Jan. 18. That would have made masks optional unless indicators at a specific school triggered mask requirements.

On Jan. 10 Superintendent David Law announced the district will be reverting to a districtwide K-6 mask mandate instead of going through with the Jan. 18 change. That continuance could last indefinitely. Under the updated guidelines, masks are strongly recommended, but not required, for seventh-grade students and above.

The next time the board could take action regarding the mask mandate is at its Jan. 24 meeting.

The number of absent students and staff don’t directly correspond to the number of positive COVID-19 cases being reported in the district, which could be due to the increase in at-home tests performed, Law said. Students and staff may also need to quarantine due to family illness or other reasons. If someone is out with COVID-19 symptoms, but not a positive test, that isn’t counted as a COVID-19 case.

On Jan. 6, 1,545 students were absent from traditional high schools across the district, which is 12.7% of the student body. On that day 19.1% of Anoka High School’s students were absent. On Dec. 16, 12.5% of traditional high schoolers were absent districtwide, and on Nov. 18, 10.1% missed school.

In middle schools across the district, 902 students were absent Jan. 6, or 10.7% of those enrolled. On Dec. 16, 9.1% of middle schoolers were absent, and on Nov. 18, 8.1% weren’t in school.

At the elementary level, 1,602 kids were absent Jan. 6, which is about 10.1% of the elementary student body. On Dec. 16, 8.3% were absent, and on Nov. 18, 9.1% missed school, according to school data. On Jan. 6, Monroe Elementary had 97 students absent, which is just under 20% of kids enrolled, compared to less than 8% absent on Dec. 16.

The district began providing KN95 masks to staff who want them.

Board members mostly favor masks

School Board Member Jeff Simon said he didn’t think the superintendent needed a board vote on the matter because the K-6 mandate is currently in place.

“You can make these changes, in my opinion,” Simon said.

He believes the district should use local, school-specific data going forward to make decisions.

The board approved a resolution Aug. 23 to mandate masks in K-6 schools when case counts on a county level were above 15 cases per 10,000 residents, because vaccines were not yet approved for kids under 12 years old.

Board Member Matt Audette pointed out that while elementary schools currently require masks, their COVID-19 cases are still rising.

Law said he’s never claimed to be a medical expert.

“It’s hard to look at these numbers and draw conclusions,” Law said.

Audette moved to rescind the mask mandate policy implemented by the Aug. 23 vote, claiming the resolution and mandates like it are harmful and far reaching.

“I trust the board knows well that parents are equipped to make health decisions on behalf of their children,” Audette said.

Board Member Erin Heers-McArdle said she receives emails from staff and parents requesting masks in schools.

“I know what I hear ... and many of them don’t feel comfortable coming to these meetings because they feel intimidated by people who are not vaccinating and masking,” Heers-McArdle said. “That said, at the end of the day, we all want our kids in school in person. You can argue for or against how masks work or don’t work. There are so many reasons for people wanting or not wanting them on kids, but if they will help keep our kids in school and help keep our teachers healthy to be in school to teach our kids, I believe we should continue them, and I am even up for expanding them.”

Simon said the Anoka-Hennepin administration has acted in good faith to keep kids in school throughout the pandemic thus far.

“I may not always agree with them personally, but I know the work they have done, and I know they have acted in good faith and independently and without influence of anyone in this state,” Simon said. “I feel confident in that.”

Audette’s motion ultimately failed in a 5-1 vote.

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