Westonka school leaders faced backlash Sept. 13 when a routine board meeting opened up for what became a lively public forum on the district’s revised face mask policy.
About 15 people, all but one in opposition to Westonka’s decision to require masks for students in grades K-7, spoke across 45 minutes, levelling accusations that the district was being “illogical, irrational and insane” in its decision making and calling for the district to “stand up for our medical freedom.”
“It’s not a [expletive] pandemic, it’s the flu!” pressed one resident.
“When is it going to stop? When do we have a voice? When do our children have a voice? When are you guys going to stand up for us?” asked another.
“You tell us you want us in school to learn,” said one speaker, a Mound Westonka High School student who said her brother had been sent home for not wearing a mask. “How is kicking a child, a 9-year-old child, out of school helping him learn anything but [that] his school district doesn’t care about how he feels and his rights?”
Minnesota Department of Health has been providing school districts with recommendations on COVID-19 response plans this year but has left the actual decision making to school leaders. The result has been that in Westonka—as in districts around the state, including neighboring Waconia and Orono—administrators and school board members have had to bear the brunt of parents’ frustration.
“We look at the pros and the cons, we look at the cost benefits of certain decisions and we try to apply it with how we can best serve this community with those recommendations,” said Westonka superintendent Kevin Borg, who multiple times Sept. 13 iterated that the primary goal was to avoid any need to quarantine and to keep students in school.
“We understand and appreciate that our community is in different places. We understand that families will look at this and what’s right for one family is not right for another and we fully appreciate that,” said Borg. “What we’re trying to do is keep kids in school so we can educate them and give them opportunities.”
Some of the anger last Monday seemed to stem from a reversal in Westonka’s mask policy for K-7 students.
The district had originally announced early in August that it would recommend but not require masks be worn while inside school buildings. A subsequent announcement, just one week before the start of classes, said that the district would require them for all students and staff inside its K-7 buildings while continuing only to recommend them for those at the high school.
That policy is in effect until at least Oct. 1 when district officials will use localized data on COVID-19 transmission to determine whether to lift the mandate for K-7, continue it or choose among other mitigation strategies.
“I honestly can’t wait ‘til no kid is forced to wear a mask ever again,” said board chair David Botts, adding that the data showed him that the time wasn’t yet right for that.
In determining its COVID-19 response, the district is keeping tabs on both the level of community transmission, or local case rates, and the level of school transmission, or percent absent with COVID or COVID-like symptoms.
Weekly data as of Sept. 16, the most recent data available by press time, show that Westonka school district zip codes were reporting an average case rate of 223. 6 per 100,000 population, more than twice the threshold for “high” transmission as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC has defined high transmission as a 7-day case rate of 100 or more cases per 100,000.
Since the start of the school year on Sept. 7, the Westonka school district has seen seven positive cases of COVID-19. Five of these cases have been at Hilltop Primary School. Grandview Middle School and Mound Westonka High School have each recorded one case.
The district also has released information on how it will use COVID-19 absences in guiding its response plan while the wider community is in high transmission.
Under that plan, if 5 percent or more are absent with COVID or COVID-like symptoms, face masks would be required of everyone in the building. That level of school transmission would also trigger a meeting with Minnesota Department of Health to determine next steps.
Hilltop Primary, where the majority of cases so far this year have been, is currently reflecting just 1.7 percent absent. Westonka’s other buildings were reporting less than 1 percent absent, meaning that each of Westonka’s schools was, at press time, comfortably under the district’s first threshold of 3 percent absent that would see implementation of additional measures, liked forced quarantines, but only at K-7 buildings.
“COVID’s not going away. It’s there, and we’re going to have to deal with it. We want to keep kids in school as long as we can, and if wearing a mask buys them more time being in school, that’s what I think is important,” said board member Gary Wollner. “We’re not doing things to get people upset. What we’re trying to do is keep kids in school and give them the best opportunities to succeed.”