The Elk River Area School District plans to start the 2021-22 school year without a mask mandate, and district officials will be recommending masks be worn and vaccines be gotten.
It will, however, be up to the parents and students to decide the matters for themselves.
But what if COVID-19 cases rise significantly in the Elk River Area School District and become more concerning? The District 728 School Board answered that question on Aug. 23.
It will be up to Superintendent Dan Bittman to make the call. He continues to stay connected with local public health officials on a daily basis. He said right now the numbers are relatively low.
The School Board delegated its authority on a 7-0 vote Monday to the superintendent to impose a face covering requirement for students, employees, volunteers and visitors at some or all of the district’s schools and at events held on school property. If he concludes based on new developments and his professional judgment that immediate or prompt implementation of such a requirement is necessary or appropriate, he can issue the requirement.
The resolution states the School Board has considered the potential benefits and potential costs of requiring face coverings, and it has specifically considered the potential health and educational benefits of face coverings, which may help limit disruptions to in-person learning and the need for students and staff to quarantine.
The School Board has also weighed the potential social, political, and financial costs associated with requiring face coverings, including the fact that families may choose to withdraw their children from the district’s schools if the School Board does or does not require face coverings.
School Board members also recognize guidance from federal and state authorities, including the CDC and the MDH, may change as the virus continues to mutate and as vaccine rates and infection rates change.
After weighing the potential risks and benefits, the School Board strongly encourages students, employees, volunteers, and visitors to wear a face covering, but the School Board does not believe a face covering requirement is necessary at this time. By delegating this authority, they say the superintendent can act more quickly than the School Board could.
Daniel Gates, the father of two children who attend Prairie View in Otsego, said at open forum on Aug. 23 he understands the resolution, which gives the district the ability to react more quickly to a rapidly changing situation for the safety of the children.
Anne Kostrzewski, a Zimmerman woman who ran unsuccessfully to the Sherburne County Board of Commissioners in 2020, said the mandates would come from the state anyway, and questioned why the board would need to relinquish its power and lay it in the lap of one unelected person, the superintendent.
“That leaves parents and taxpayers unrepresented,” she said, before asking what the purpose of the elected board is. “The process should not change.”
The 2021-22 school year starts on Sept. 7.
Bittman told a group of community leaders at a community partners meeting in Elk River earlier in the day the district has received thousands of emails from people who have ideas on how to handle the issue of whether to require masks.
“The bottom line is the school district continues to review the data daily,” Bittman said. “We don’t believe that making a decision to mask or vaccinate is something we would do without data to support it. We just want to make sure we have data to support it.”
He told the group he is ready and willing to make a decision if the data supports it.
“We have done that in the past; we’ll do that again,” he said. “Right now we think the right way to go is to strongly encourage people use masks and get vaccinations, but we leave that up to families to make that decision.
“We know that decision doesn’t help families that may have children with vulnerable health conditions,” Bittman said. “We know that and that’s hard for us.”
School Board members heard from Kelly Ukes, the mom of three children, ages 4, 6 and 8, at its Aug. 9 open forum.
She told the board one of her children, Gus, is medically complex.
“He is 6 years old and has had three major airway surgeries, including two during the pandemic,” she said. “You can imagine this respiratory pandemic has been extremely scary for our family to navigate through.
“Aside from (his) health issues, Gus is a normal, crazy 6-year-old boy who’s learned to write his name, colors, the alphabet. He is ready for kindergarten. He cannot wait. Kindergarten has been his one and only goal in his entire life.”
She asked board members to follow the science, think of kids like Gus and protect children.
“Every single doctor said the risks are too high for Gus to go to school,” she said. “Even if he wore a mask, the fact that others wouldn’t be, he would essentially be protecting them and they would not be protecting him.”
Karianna Kragt, a 10-year-old girl who attends Hassan Elementary School, spoke at open forum on Aug. 23 to lobby officials not to impose mask mandates, stand up for her rights and urge School Board members not to fall victim to fear of being persecuted.
“Do not be pressured to compromise your values,” she said, noting she is a student who had an IEP for speech during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Please excuse me if I struggle with some enunciation,” she said. “Understand that masks make it more difficult for me to learn. I have the right to free public education without coercion or fear.”
She asked board members to protect her body autonomy, her right to make decisions over her own life and future.
She said she was forced to wear a mask or face segregation and isolation.
“This made me scared, anxious and fearful,” she said. “Remember I was only 9.”
She said masks stunt her breathing, irritate her face, collect bacteria and give her anxiety.
“Communities must come together and stop mandates that deprive individuals of bodily autonomy,” she said. “These mandates (take away) our freedoms, liberties and human rights.”
Jim Boyle is the Editor of the Star News, a sister paper of the Crow River News.