Brainerd Public Schools will institute a districtwide mask mandate beginning Monday, Aug. 30.
Students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, staff, volunteers and visitors will be required to wear face coverings inside, with a few exceptions, the school board decided Wednesday, Aug. 25.
Exceptions will be made for indoor physical education classes and Minnesota State High School League activities, when masks will not be required while engaging in physical activity.
Exceptions may also be made for individuals with identified medical or behavioral needs that prevent them from wearing face coverings.
Students, staff, volunteers and visitors are not required to wear face covers while outdoors for recess, physical education classes, athletic practices/contests or other instructional or recreational activities.
Per state requirements, face coverings must be worn on public transportation — including school buses — through Jan. 18.
School board members approved the measure 4-1 at the recommendation of Superintendent Laine Larson, who said the district has two main priorities going into the school year — the safety and well-being of students and staff, and in-person learning.
“It’s really just trying to keep those two things in mind,” Larson said of her recommendation Wednesday. “How do we keep our kids in school every day with their teachers, with their peers? How do we keep the sports and activities going that we all love — all the Warrior activities that we love to attend? And how do we do that and still be faced with some of the challenges that are happening with this pandemic that we wish would just go away?”
With no Safe Learning Plan from the state this year and individual school districts left to come up with their own plans, district administrators said they have worked with Crow Wing County Public Health officials to develop guidelines and monitor local COVID-19 case counts.
Larson said more local control is appreciated — as last year’s Safe Learning Plan was a blanket approach for all schools — but some state guidance would have been nice. Larson has also met with leaders of other similarly sized districts in the region to gain insight on what others are doing.
The following organizations, administrators noted, all recommend face coverings for students and staff in K-12 education settings: American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Family Physicians, Minnesota Department Health, Crow Wing County Public Health, Mayo Clinic - Rochester.
Larson, along with Assistant Superintendent Heidi Hahn and Human Resources Director Angie Bennett presented the board with a decision matrix, which board members approved as part of the COVID-19 plan for the 2021-22 school year.
The matrix outlines the specific thresholds for masking policies during the school year and is based on Crow Wing County’s 14-day per 10,000 case rate, meaning the number of new cases in a 14-day period per 10,000 residents. Using those counts, the matrix is as follows
0-19.99: Face covers strongly recommended indoors for staff, visitors, volunteers and students ages 2 and up.
20-29.99: Face coverings required indoors for students in early childhood up through eighth grade and strongly recommended for older students. Face coverings required indoors for staff, visitors and volunteers.
30-49.99: Face coverings required indoors for all staff, visitors, volunteers and students ages 2 and up.
50+: Face coverings required indoors for all staff, visitors, volunteers and students ages 2 and up, and the district’s incident command team will meet to determine additional mitigation strategies, recommendations and communications. The incident command team includes Larson, Hahn and Bennett, along with the communications director, district nurse, Crow Wing County Public Health supervisor and representatives from Sourcewell and the Minnesota Department of Health.
Crow Wing County’s 14-day case rate sits at about 32 for the past two weeks, putting the district in the category of requiring facemasks indoors for everyone.
By approving the decision matrix, the board gives school administrators the authority to update masking policies without board approval, meaning if the case rate dips below 20, the mask requirement can be lifted without the board having to vote.
“The administration should be empowered to (repeal the face covering mandate) the minute that the numbers are there,” board member Kevin Boyles said. “We shouldn’t have kids in masks one day longer — one hour longer — than they need to be.”
Boyles, along with board members Charles Black Lance, Bob Nystrom and Jana Shogren approved the COVID-19 plan, which included the face covering mandate, while Tom Haglin voted against it.
Haglin said his decision was not political, not based on the “loudest voices” or not in response to threats of parents pulling their kids from the district.
“It just simply is because I am not a health expert. I don’t know what’s best for our kids or not. And because of that, I’ll always just continue to put the trust in our parents and our community and our students and let them make that decision. And because of that I can’t support this,” Haglin said, noting he does not distrust Larson, Hahn and Bennett.
One parent in the boardroom yelled “thank you” during Haglin’s comments, while a couple clapped when he finished speaking.
Twenty-three members of the public sat in the boardroom Wednesday, while others watched remotely due to social distancing practices. Many, though not all, of those in the boardroom audience wore masks.
Boyles said there are a lot of unknowns on both sides of the issue. Long-term effects of COVID-19 — especially new variants — are unknown, as are long-term effects of kids wearing masks for several hours a day. But from a legal standpoint, he said the district’s risk profile would increase if something drastic happens down the road and no mitigating measures were taken.
His ultimate decision, he said, came from reading more than 220 articles, press releases and other documents from medical professionals all over the country.
“In the end, they support masking, so I do, too, with a lot of trepidation,” Boyles said. “But I feel like it’s the best route to go right now, with the idea that the minute we can get those things off the kids, we get them off the kids because we know it isn’t good for them. It’s just a question of the lesser of two evils — which is worse?”
Board Chair Ruth Nelson was absent during Wednesday’s meeting, but in a letter read by Black Lance, Nelson said she would have voted for an indoor mask mandate if she had been there, based on information from health experts.
“We have seen weekly the increase in our community of this variant. We have also seen what has happened in the south with hospitals at capacity. We need to protect the vulnerable in our community and, most importantly, our staff and our students,” Nelson wrote. “… I could not in good conscience not do what needs to be done to keep our schools as healthy as possible.”
Because she was absent from the meeting, though, Nelson did not get to vote on the matter.
Testing in schools
The Minnesota Department of Education issued a recommendation earlier this month for weekly COVID-19 testing for unvaccinated students and staff and announced grant opportunities for testing supplies in the schools.
Hahn said she has received many questions from parents asking if this means their children will automatically be tested regularly, and the answer is no. The district will have on-site testing for staff members and could have rapid tests available for students and staff by late September or early October. Parents would have to sign consent forms for students to be tested on site.
Hahn said more information on testing procedures will be released to families when available.
With new state and federal guidance on close contacts this year, students in the same classroom with someone who tests positive for COVID-19 may not have to be quarantined or tested. If a student tests positive and he or she — along with those close by — were wearing well-fitting masks, those nearby are not deemed close contacts.
Boyles asked who is in charge of determining if masks are “well-fitted,” and Hahn said that will be up to the teachers, who did a good job of keeping mitigation strategies in check. Last year, she said, the district did not tend to see several positive cases coming out of classrooms where one student tested positive.
As of Wednesday, there were five COVID-19 cases in staff members, as well as 10 staff members absent due to symptoms and awaiting testing or positive cases in their household. There were four cases in students and 11 student absences due to awaiting test results for symptoms.