Staying the course is the current Brainerd Public Schools tactic in handling COVID-19 during the upcoming school year.
The only state mandates in place right now are masks on public transportation — including school buses — and schools reporting positive COVID-19 cases to the Minnesota Department of Health. The rest of the recommendations from federal, state and local health officials — regarding masks, social distancing and quarantining — are all just that, recommendations, with the final decisions being left up to each school district.
“We are very cognizant as an administrative team and a leadership team of Brainerd Public Schools that we have families that are in very different places about this pandemic, and we are doing our best to be respectful and responsive and meet the needs of all of our families,” Assistant Superintendent Heidi Hahn said Monday.
But Brainerd families want to know for certain if the school district is going to mandate masks when students return to school in the fall. Some want the mandate. Some do not.
Following social distancing guidelines, 23 community members were allowed in the boardroom for the Brainerd School Board meeting Monday, Aug. 9. At least 30 other people sat in a room down the hall, watching a live feed of the meeting on a large screen. Thirty-two of those community members spoke during the public forum portion of the meeting, the vast majority of whom either advocated for or against wearing masks. About 13 people spoke against a mask mandate, and about nine spoke in favor of masks.
Some parents questioned the safety of wearing masks, bringing forward concerns of students not being able to engage properly with their peers while hiding their faces, struggling with mental health issues and seemingly developing illnesses from wearing masks all day every day. Masks should be a choice, many people said, and not a requirement.
Others showed up to the meeting while wearing masks, advocating for masks as important preventative measures against the spread of COVID-19.
Some said they won’t send their kids to Brainerd Public Schools if there is a mask mandate. Others said they won’t be able to send their kids to school if there isn’t a mask mandate.
“I never pictured myself before the board, fighting for kids’ right to breathe fresh air. Of all the issues we could be discussing, this should be the very last one,” parent Susanna Lamusga said before giving an impassioned plea for the board not to put a mask mandate in place, talking about her 6-year-old daughter who she said developed swollen tonsils during the last school year, likely after wearing a mask for so long, causing her to choke on food. When her daughter was subsequently at home not wearing a mask later in the school year for two and a half weeks, as Lamusga’s other child had a fever, Lamusga said her daughter’s tonsils returned to normal, and she was able to eat again.
“What is it going to take for you as a superintendent, a district and a school board to choose our children, their rights and their freedoms, over fear, over teachers unions, over the CDC, over the status quo and everything else?” She asked the board, in tears. “Please choose our children.”
Amy Borash gave an equally impassioned plea for the crowd at the meeting to understand how awful COVID-19 can be, mentioning her husband who spent time in the intensive care unit after contracting the virus last fall and her 23-year-old fitness instructor daughter who still has vocal cord and stamina issues 10 months after having COVID-19.
“I get it, it’s not going to happen to most people. I understand. But what if it’s you or your child or your husband? And what if it’s a little kid who can’t fight this?” Borash said while facing the crowd and wearing a mask.
After one parent said the school board is not a health board and should not act as such, and others questioned the credibility of entities like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state health department that have amended recommendations several times during the pandemic, Borash asked who they are going to listen to.
“Call the U of M, call Mayo, call Rochester. Any of those well-respected health facilities will say that these help,” Borash said pointing to her mask. “They help. They’re not 100%, but they help.”
That statement was met with several utterances of “No, they don’t,” and like phrases, with the crowd talking over Borash and board members calling for the audience to let her finish.
Borash told board members they have community support, to which someone in the audience responded “very little.”
Brainerd High School teacher and district parent Alexis Marcelo said many students don’t wear masks properly anyway, and she asked the board to consider the few students who actually contracted COVID-19 during the last school year, versus the multitudes who were just sent home from being in close proximity to someone with the virus. Another parent read aloud the label on a box of children’s masks that said “not intended for antimicrobial or antiviral protection. … Use only under adult supervision. Discontinue use if child exhibits discomfort.”
Parent Ed Shaw, on the other hand, likened mask mandates to also having to wear clothes and shoes in public. On hot days, like Monday, he said he would be more comfortable without wearing shoes or a shirt, too, but part of living in society is making concessions for the greater good.
“It’s really not that big of a deal,” he said of wearing a mask, which he added does not guarantee anything but decreases the odds of getting sick.
Shaw also noted there are likely people in favor of masks who did not come to the board meeting to voice their concerns because they did not want to be in a crowd.
Other parents against mask mandates questioned the legality of the board making such a mandate if they chose to go that way, one likening a mask mandate to Nazi Germany.
Plans for fall
The general consensus among board members and administrators was to “stay the course” for now, continuing to follow the two state mandates in place, while strongly encouraging unvaccinated individuals to wear masks and social distance at least 3 feet when possible, per CDC guidelines.
If it came time, board member Tom Haglin asked if the school board would be the decision maker on a districtwide mask mandate, which Hahn and Superintendent Laine Larson said would be the case.
Board member Charles Black Lance said he would like to see the district establish a specific threshold for when discussions of further precautions — like mandating masks — would take place. That might not be possible at this point in time, but it’s something he said he would like to discuss.
Black Lance also said he would rather not have students be mandated to wear masks right now, based on the information he has heard, but there will be a point in time where the board is tasked with doing what is best for students, and that may mean wearing masks. He said he will support that if needs to but not without sufficient information to back that up.
Board member Jana Shogren said she has a hard time hearing from people who have children or other loved ones with illnesses or medical conditions that would make it unsafe for them to go to school without masks being mandated. But, she said, that issue is just as important as that of a child who develops a tonsil issue from wearing a mask.
“I just think we can’t ignore one or the other,” Shogren said. “And I know we’ll never please everybody.”
Hahn said it’s not necessarily a matter of pleasing everyone, but more a matter of being attentive to each individual student’s needs, which is something the district already does. In this case, that may mean conversations at each school building about what can be done to meet every student’s needs.
Board member Ruth Nelson said she would like to see more discussion about learning pods or something of the sort in place for students at a higher risk for illness. She added she hopes the community will give board members grace as they make difficult decisions.
Superintendent Larson said it is the district’s dream to keep all students in school all day, every day — which is the plan at this time — but district leaders are also going to keep student safety as the No. 1 priority.
“We’re going to do what’s best as we go forward, and we’ll keep you well informed.”