Following a long discussion during public comments and a raucous audience, the Stillwater Area Schools board voted 5-1 on Aug. 26 to require masks while inside for all people in district elementary and middle school buildings, regardless of vaccination status. The masking requirement started on Monday, Aug. 30

There are exceptions to the mandate for medical health conditions, disabilities, mental health, developmental or behavioral needs, SAPS superintendent Malinda Lansfeldt said. Masks are not required outside, and that includes recess.

While the board didn’t vote on a high school mask mandate, the district is highly recommending students — along with staff — wear masks in the ninth to 12th grade setting along with the Alternative Learning Center and Transitions program and Central Services Building also wear a face covering.

“The CDC recommendation is to universally mask indoors when in high levels of community transmission,” Lansfeldt said on Aug. 26.

As of Aug. 26, Washington County is in an area with high community spread of the virus.

“We want to err on the side of safety and know what’s right for our kids during this very complex and challenging time,” Lansfeldt said. “Our priority is to keep kids in school and learning.”

There are four categories distinguishing how much the virus is spreading: Low, moderate, substantial, and high.

The seven day case rate per 100,000 people is 171. The rate hits the high transmission mark threshold when that rate hits 100.

Lansfeldt noted the district needs to use as many tools as it can to prevent the spread of COVID.

“I’ve heard from people that masking is kind of like a bicycle helmet, or a seatbelt, you don’t know too many that like to wear those, but it is a preventative mitigation strategy,” Lansfeldt said. “The goal during the surge of the delta variant is to use all the mitigation strategies we have to prevent transmission of the virus.”

Elementary school students (along with some sixth graders) are at the highest risk because they are not yet eligible for the vaccine.

The superintendent emphasized that mask wearing in school will help to keep kids learning in person. Referencing a graph showing the increasing spread of COVID-19 in the county from June to August, Lansfeldt said, “You can see it has just been on a trajectory increasing.”

Assistant Superintendent Jennifer Cherry added, citing data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that the district was preparing to move past the pandemic, but then the delta variant emerged in late June. .

During last year’s graduation ceremony, Cherry noted they thought everyone was going to need to wear masks, but then the mask mandate was lifted by Gov. Tim Walz days before the get-together.

“We were able to assemble as a large group, and we were able to celebrate that wonderful day,” Cherry said. “We thought we were heading in a direction away from this ugly pandemic that we’ve been in. That’s what you saw on that last graph, the cases were very low, then all of a sudden this huge spike and that’s where we’re at right now.”

Cherry said even though they are explaining the issue like they are public health professionals, the district is not a medical authority.

“We’re educators; we’re not experts in public health,” Cherry said, “but (we’ve) been thrown into this, and we’re being asked to make these decisions about how do we keep our kids in school.”

She noted other Minnesota School districts have enacted some form of a mask requirement.

With the Delta variant prolonging the pandemic, other COVID-19 safety measures include handwashing and hand sanitizing station, masking physical distancing, daily cleaning, and increased ventilation and there will be no visitors or field trips for kindergarten through fifth grade for the first semester. There will be some exceptions such as art programs and field trips. Other safety measures shutting down a classroom if there is a 5% positive case rate or three cases in a room.

Board response

Board member Matt Onken asked what a possible timeline for removing the mask mandate.

There are a number of factors that would lead the board to revisit the mandate, but at a minimum the board will look at the issue again before the start of each quarter, Lansfeldt responded.

Without the governor’s emergency order in place, Board member Tina Riehle has consistently questioned enacting masking mandates.

Looking directly at Superintendent Lansfeldt, Riehle said during the Aug. 26 meeting, “Our taxpayers here pay for this school. … We are supposed to be teaching reading, math, science, we are not supposed to be parenting children. We are not doing a good enough job on the things we’re tasked to do. I think we should pull our focus back and do what we’re supposed to do, and leave the parenting to the parents.

Riehle voted against the resolution citing a parent’s right to choose. Riehle said she tried to submit studies that contradicted the CDC’s guideline, but that those were not including in the board’s discussion.

“Studies that show that cloth masks are ineffective when they’re washed,” Riehle said. “That surgical masks aren’t effective if they’re not fit right.”

“This is a family decision,” Riehle said. “This is government overreach. (director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy Michael) Osterholm, himself said N-95 masks are what worked. I don’t think it’s appropriate to raise our children based on terror and fear.”

These comments drew applause from the audience, many of whom spoke against a mask mandate during public comments.

Earlier while the board was discussing the issue Board Chairwoman Bev Petrie banged her gavel and asked the audience to remain quiet several times.

“Stop, we do not take comments from the audience at this time,” Petrie said. “We are trying to carry on a business meeting here.”

She later abruptly called for five-minute recess, and threatened to call a longer break if audience members refused to yield.

Katie Hockert responded to Riehle’s claims stating that masks are a tool the district can use to keep kids learning at a physical location. Not having to return students to distance learning is a priority for district staff and for the board.

“One of the biggest things we are focusing on in this discussion in the district is keeping our kids in schools,” Hockert said, “and trying to find a way to open our schools in a fashion that will allow us to keep our kids in the classroom.”

Board member Allison Sherman said she appreciated the large amount of community input given, and will support the resolution. In addition to public comments, board members have been receiving emails from both sides stating their input.

“I’m doing this out of an abundance of caution and am doing this out of the advice of top medical professionals,” Sherman said. “I’m voting for the safety of our young children who are not vaccine eligible.”

Board members Annie Porbeni said she has learned of children who have died from COVID-19, but none who have died from wearing a mask. She stated that masks are one way to keep district schools open and are needed tools to do that.

“Masking sometimes can be extremely uncomfortable for children,” Porbeni said. “It’s true … it’s even uncomfortable for adults, but the reality of our situation is we want our schools open.”

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