Will masks be required for Brainerd students and teachers this fall?
Some parents have already vocalized their desire for students not to wear masks, as COVID-19 cases in Crow Wing County begin to rise once again, and so far, Brainerd School Board Chair Bob Nystrom agrees.
“I don’t support a mandatory mask mandate. The numbers don’t support it currently,” Nystrom said during a phone interview Thursday, July 29, noting students 12 and up are able to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and the younger students have been shown not to transmit the coronavirus as much as older kids. He added distance learning will be an option for the upcoming school year.
Discussion over masks in schools comes after the Minnesota Department of Health issued guidelines Wednesday, July 28, for school officials to consider for the 2021-22 school year. Those recommendations include COVID-19 vaccines for staff and students 12 and older, indoor masking for everyone in school buildings and at least 3 feet of distance between students whenever possible.
“I don’t believe that we should start the school year with a mandatory mask mandate. And in a way, I appreciate the fact that they did this petition because it does tell us that there are a lot of people in the community that are against mask mandates.”
— Bob Nystrom, Brainerd School Board chair"
Department of health officials also said students, teachers and other staff members who have been fully vaccinated do not need to stay home even if they have had recent close contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case, as long as they do not have any symptoms and do not test positive. Those exposed to COVID-19 should continue following testing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While the Brainerd School Board has yet to make a formal decision on a mask mandate or any other measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 this fall, Nystrom solidified his position even more Friday, July 30, after learning of a change.org petition — with over 1,200 signatures as of Friday afternoon — calling for Brainerd School Board members not to require masks during the upcoming school year.
“I’m with them,” he said of those who signed the petition. “I don’t believe that we should start the school year with a mandatory mask mandate. And in a way, I appreciate the fact that they did this petition because it does tell us that there are a lot of people in the community that are against mask mandates.”
School board member Kevin Boyles agreed with Nystrom, saying Friday those who created and signed the petition are engaging in the issue in a productive manner.
“Some people from that group have reached out to me, and I think, I think what they’re really most interested in is just finding out where the district stands sooner rather than later,” Boyles said. “They don’t want us to wait until the week before school and then all of a sudden spring a decision on them. And I think that’s the right thing to do so that they can decide what they want to do about their kids.”
The petition — called “Don’t mask our Brainerd ISD kids!!” — was created by district parent Mike Hoff, who wrote on the website, “There is no scientific reason to mask our children. We can’t have our kids muzzled again for another year. Don’t let it happen. The school board works for us, not the other way around.” Hoff declined to comment further on the petition but appeared to have community support behind him, with 29 others leaving comments about why they also stand against the mask mandate, and 1,224 signatures as of 5:30 p.m. Friday.
Those who left comments said students should have the choice to wear a mask or not, and many said they do not believe there is a scientific reason for kids to wear masks. The petition is open to the general public, meaning signers could be outside the Brainerd School District.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises those age 2 and older who are not fully vaccinated to continue wearing masks in indoor public places. While the CDC says masks generally do not need to be worn outside, they should be considered in areas with high numbers of COVID-19 cases when in crowded outdoor settings or when in close contact with those who are not fully vaccinated.
Nystrom emphasized the board has not made a decision yet on a mask mandate and will discuss the issue at the next meeting on Aug. 9. District leaders continue to monitor local cases, he said, and assess what steps need to be taken. They are also working on how to handle students who have breathing problems or immune system issues to make sure they can stay as safe as possible.
If the lakes area were to see a surge in COVID-19 cases as the school year goes on, Nystrom said the board would have to consider a mask mandate, but he does not envision one being in place for the beginning of the 2021-22 school year.
Neither does Boyles.
“Our county is doing really good on transmission rates. We’re not having the issues they’re having in Missouri or Florida or any of these other places, so my own take is that I don’t see a reason to mandate masks at this moment in time,” Boyles said. “But I’m going to keep my eye on the case counts, and if we get to the point where we feel it’s in the best interest to do it, then we’ll have to revisit it. But for now I don’t see anything in the health guidelines or the CDC recommendations that tells me we should mask all of our kids.”
Board member Ruth Nelson said she has received emails from community members both for and against mask mandates but said she hopes the district will not have to require masks.
“There isn’t an answer that’s going to make everyone happy no matter what we do. So we just want to do whatever’s best for the kids and for the health of the kids,” Nelson said, adding she encourages everyone who is able to get vaccinated to do so.
None of the rest of the school board members, nor Superintendent Laine Larson, were available for comment Friday.
The Brainerd School Board meets at 6 p.m. Aug. 9 in the boardroom in the Washington Educational Services Building.
Other district decisions
Officials at Crosby-Ironton, Pierz, Pillager and Staples-Motley school districts announced masks will not be required for the upcoming school year, but will be optional for those who want to wear them.
“We will continue to be vigilant in our sanitizing and have invested in upgrades to our air quality standards,” Pierz school officials wrote on the website. “We support any students or staff who prefer to wear a mask.”