At the first Orono School Board meeting of the new school year, the board and district administrators outlined its Safe Return to School plan.

In that plan, the district strongly recommended that masks be worn indoors by all individuals regardless of vaccination status but did not require them.

At that time school board chairperson Bob Tunheim said, “Strong recommendation to wear a mask but not a mandate but if conditions significantly worsen, a mask mandate is possible.”

Just over a week later that possibility could be here.

A special meeting of the Orono School Board will be held Thursday, Sept. 2, at 5 p.m. where Superintendent Dr. Kristine Flesher will bring a recommendation to the Board for a E-12 facial coverings requirement for all students, staff and visitors. This is in response to the high rates of transmission and guidance from the Minnesota Department of Health.

In a letter to Orono families and district staff, Flesher said, “We are once again in a dynamic situation with the rapid rise of COVID-19 in our community. Since Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021, there has been a substantial increase in the current real-time data from the University of Minnesota, showing an increasing and high rate of virus transmission. The Orono community case rate is now significantly above the standard for “High Transmission” defined by the CDC and will be in that range to start the school year. The Hennepin County transmission rate has also moved to a high rate for our Western Suburban region. In addition, districts that have started in-person school, without masks, are already seeing dramatic spikes of illness, quarantines and disruptions because of the viral activity in the community.”

Flesher continued, “During this same period, public schools have received clarification from the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), stating that universal masking is essential to prevent the spread of the highly contagious COVID-19 Delta variant. This is a higher standard than earlier guidance to strongly recommend facial coverings. Public school districts are under obligation to follow MDH guidance, as we have done year after year, to protect the health and safety of our learning community. We will continue to adapt our COVID-19 mitigation strategies to these changing conditions. We must achieve our fundamental goal of maintaining in-person learning five days per week for all students.”

Besides bring the facial coverings equipment, the district will also implement these additional mitigation strategies: health metrics: The COVID-19 dashboard contains all relevant data for decision making. Health metrics will also be included for each building once school begins; Ventilation: The district has met with Wold architects and IEA indoor air quality engineers about portable filtration units. The ability of our ventilation systems to complete a total air exchange every 10 minutes resulting with outside air is unmatched by any portable filtration unit; Cohorting: K-8 eating in classrooms, K-5 classroom cohorting, recess cohorting, etc.; Required exclusion and quarantine procedures, as detailed by MDH; Building strategies: Signage, plexiglass in office, no large indoor assemblies, limited visitors, etc.; and provide information to community resources on COVID-19 testing and vaccine availability.

Flesher said the district understand that shifting guidance for facial coverings is challenging and if families who would prefer their child move to a potential asynchronous learning option, please contact your building principal.

“I know we all want nothing more than to put COVID-19 behind us and return to school without mitigation strategies,” Flesher said. “In the last few months, we have heard the emotions and differences in our community regarding viewpoints on the virus, risks, and how best to return to school. I ask for your understanding of the reality that managing those viewpoints from a family perspective differs from responsibilities and obligations of a public school system. I continue to ask that we come together as a community and follow these mitigation strategies, including staying home when ill, wearing face coverings, practicing social-distancing, and following quarantine protocols, so we can reduce illness and maintain continuity of learning for our students.”

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