Heated discussions circulated the Osseo Educational Service Center board room regarding the district’s masking policy at the Nov. 16 Osseo School Board meeting. After hearing from parents, the superintendent, and fellow board members, the board voted 4-to-2 in favor of keeping the current masking policy, which mandates everyone two years and older to wear a mask in all school buildings, through Jan. 31, 2022.

Osseo superintendent Cory McIntyre cited rising positive COVID-19 cases in the district and schools in his recommendation for extending the mandatory masking policy. Over the last week, McIntyre said there were 204 positive COVID-19 cases, which was “significantly up from weeks prior,” he said.

During a one-week stretch beginning Oct. 24, the positivity rate among students ages 10- to 19-years-old was 10.10%, which McIntyre said was one of the highest rates since the pandemic began. The current seven-day case rate per 100,000 people in Hennepin County is 382, which falls under the “high” category, according to a chart from the Minnesota Department of Health. Under “high” transmission, the chart states that masks are “required for students, staff, and visitors ages two and older.”

“None of us like wearing masks,” McIntyre said at the meeting. “I can’t wait until I’m done with it. But at this point, I’m not comfortable moving away from the masks.”

Since the beginning of the school year, McIntyre said there have been over 850 positive cases, with students making up nearly 85% and over 3,000 symptomatic cases of non-COVID-19 illness. “It has put a lot of strain on our classrooms and staff,” McIntyre said.

He also talked about a new testing program in the district, which he hopes will be another mitigation effort to curb the spread of the virus. Starting Nov. 10, all schools began to offer a rapid antigen test, with families having to submit a digital consent form for their students to get tested. Results are produced within 15 minutes of the test.

Board member Heather Douglass, who voted against the extended mask mandate, said she feels like there is no objective endpoint for the mandatory masking policy. “There is absolutely no endgame,” Douglass said at the meeting. “There are no metrics to say this is where we need to be to stop doing this. We don’t have a clear exit strategy. It does not make sense to continue this indefinitely.”

McIntyre responded, saying, “when the data is there, our action will follow. As long as the case rates are up, we will continue to have to do mitigation. I will not go against the public health guidance and the numbers if they are this high.”

When would McIntyre move to recommend masking in schools, rather than require? When the seven-day case rate per 100,000 people dips down under 50 and into the “moderate” transmission category. According to the MDH chart, masking would shift from required to recommended.

Another point of emphasis during the meeting was regarding vaccinations, specifically for students between ages 5 and 11 years old.

Board member Thomas Brooks told a story about one of his elementary-aged kids being excited to get his first vaccination shot. He had been waiting all year and when the time came for the shot, the first thing out of his mouth was, ‘Now I get to take off my mask!”

“That was significant to me,” Brooks said. “That was the first time I had heard anything from him over the course of the pandemic where he gave his opinion one way or another on wearing a mask.”

Brooks said it is a concern for him to promote vaccinations among elementary-aged children while knowing they still might not be able to take off their masks in school. “I would be inclined to support the recommendation [tonight],” Brooks said at the meeting, who voted in favor of the extended mask mandate. “But this decision increasingly gets more difficult and getting into next year, it’s getting more difficult, particularly now that vaccinations are available to our elementary-aged kids. We really need to set an end date [on the mask policy] based on the availability of vaccinations and stick to it.”

Douglass agreed. “Many students got vaccinated so that if they did so, they would not be required to wear masks,” she said. “Today, they are feeling deceived and defeated because there is no end in sight.”

Brooks even went as far as to say when the board votes in January whether or not to further extend the masking requirement, he might not be in favor of it. “We want to start to get to a point where we remove the masks, instead of continuing with the extension that doesn’t seem like it’s ever going to end,” he said. “I hope Jan. 31 is that date, as I will be supporting this recommendation [tonight]. But I don’t feel I can continue to extend this beyond that.”

Board member Tanya Simons, who voted against the extension of the mask requirement, thinks the decision whether or not to wear masks in schools should lie squarely on the parents, not the school board. “It is their children, they are the parents,” Simons said. “The board is not supposed to make medical choices for the students. This is a very divided issue and when it’s this divided, our responsibility is to give the parents the choices of what’s best for their child.”

“I believe mask usage should be viewed as a personal health choice,” Douglass said. “We are not permitted to make this a requirement. This is a parental decision. It is not our place. We need to stay in the business of education. That is what we were elected to do.”

Board member Jackie Mosqueda-Jones, who voted in favor of extending the mask requirement, said even though she understands the passionate arguments from both sides, she is following the guidance from the public health experts. “I have to go with what experts are saying is the best thing for our entire community,” Mosqueda-Jones said. “I know that people will be angry no matter which way this goes down. I hope as a community, we can get past accusing each other of harming students when we’re all just doing what we believe is the best.”

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