Five days into the school year, no classrooms at Brainerd Public Schools have had to be put in quarantine because of an indoor masking policy and updated guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Earlier this summer, the CDC updated its “close contact” definition when pertaining to school-aged kids. If a student tests positive for COVID-19 but that student — along with those around them — was wearing a well-fitting face covering during the time of exposure, there is no need to quarantine. In August, the Brainerd School Board put in place an indoor mask mandate for all students, staff, volunteers and visitors to district facilities, except in the case of athletic or physical education participation and those with medical exemptions.
As of Monday, Sept. 13, district administrators reported two active positive COVID-19 cases in staff members and 16 in students. As of the same day, there were four staff absences and 35 student absences due to symptoms of COVID-19, pending test results or positive cases in the household. While there are no numbers showing how many students would have been in quarantine had they not been wearing masks, Human Resources Director Angie Bennett said there have been cases this year that would have sent entire classrooms into quarantine under last year’s guidelines or if students were not wearing masks.
“Throughout this entire pandemic, we’ve never enforced that everyone had to wear a cloth face mask. It is a face covering; there’s several different options."
— Angie Bennett, human resources director
“I would say that has saved a lot of quarantines,” Bennett said.
While adults are still considered as close contacts while wearing masks, those who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 do not have to quarantine after having close contact with a case. They should monitor symptoms, get tested three to five days after exposure and continue wearing a mask indoors, according to the CDC.
If the current COVID-19 numbers were to stay consistent as the school year progresses, according to the district’s decision-making matrix, masks would likely become strongly recommended instead of required.
When presenting COVID-19 information to school board members Monday, Bennett and Assistant Superintendent Heidi Hahn said they are working on an updated decision-making matrix, which would allow for different decisions to be made in different district buildings, depending on the number of cases in each school instead of relying on countywide data.
As the year goes on, administrators will create building snapshots showing the COVID-19 climate in each building and where each one falls into the decision-making matrix. Board members will talk more about that data at their next meeting Sept. 29.
After voting 4-1 to implement an indoor mask policy in August, the board approved the first reading of that formal policy Monday. The vote was still 4-1, with Tom Haglin opposed. This time, however, Board Chair Ruth Nelson — who was absent when the original vote took place — supported the policy, while Kevin Boyles, who attended Monday’s meeting virtually and previously supported the mandate, did not vote.
The policy states a face covering must cover the nose and mouth completely but should be comfortable and not overly tight or restrictive. When asked for more information on that line in the policy, Bennett said a face covering should not be uncomfortable or painful for a student or staff member. Otherwise, a face shield would be offered in place.
“Throughout this entire pandemic, we’ve never enforced that everyone had to wear a cloth face mask. It is a face covering; there’s several different options,” she said. “So if somebody was having difficulty breathing or felt light-headed or having a hard time focusing or whatever the reason is, we did not require medical certification for individuals to wear a face shield. So if they felt it was better for breathing purposes or for teachers who are teaching that they wanted the teachers to be able to see their facial expressions, speech, special ed, all of those specific areas, we’ve never kicked back about wearing a face shield.”
Special accommodations may also be made for those with medical, developmental or behavioral conditions.
With masks not required during physical exertion — like gym class — Haglin asked how that is productive when playing a sport like basketball, where kids are in very close contact with one another. Hahn said phy ed teachers have altered their activities to allow students to spread out when inside.
The face covering mandate did not come without backlash from parents, who said they see the policy as a control device rather than a health protection.
About a half-dozen parents and community members and one student voiced their opposition to the mandate during the public forum portion of Monday’s meeting.
Doug Kern, who showed up to the meeting wearing not only a mask but also a paper grocery bag with cutouts for eyes over his head, chastised the board for not taking into account data relating to mental health struggles or medical issues caused by masks before voting on the policy.
“I’m just really embarrassed by the partial information that the board received, and then the decision that they made based on that partial information,” Kern said, challenging the board’s transparency.
“There’s certainly some mitigation with it (masks), but there’s also some downsides with it as well, and we’re not seeing that or talking about that part of it, and I just think that that’s critically important.”
— Tom Haglin, school board member
Amy Bogart also addressed mental health, asking what the district’s plan is for those students negatively affected by masks or those who struggled with distance learning last year if that were to be implemented again at some point.
Haglin asked later in the meeting if the board could be updated with statistics from school counselors relating to mental health, which Bennett said she could work on.
“I don’t intend at all to get into the debate on the use of a mask and whether it’s safe or not,” Haglin said. “There’s certainly some mitigation with it, but there’s also some downsides with it as well, and we’re not seeing that or talking about that part of it, and I just think that that’s critically important.”
Bogart also asked when the COVID-19 precautions — like masks — are going to end, as she said the virus itself will never end.
Administrators addressed this question later on in the meeting, after the majority of those who spoke during the public forum had already left.
Bryan Ruzynski brought a sensor to measure oxygen levels, showing board members how the sensor beeped with a warning of low oxygen levels after he breathed into it while wearing a mask.
Ruzynski is not the first to use this sort of test to try to prove the usefulness of masks. Videos of the same sort have circulated around social media over the past year and been proven to be misleading by health experts. A factcheck.org story from July 2020 refutes a video made by Pennsylvania firefighter and borough council member Jeff Neff, with input from Thomas Fuller, an associate professor of health sciences at Illinois State University and member of the American Industrial Hygiene Association, and Kirsten Koehler, an associate professor of environmental health and engineering at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Koehler said in the story that exhaled breath is only about 16% oxygen, and when a person exhales into a mask, some small volume of air will be left in the small space between the mask and the face with a lower concentration at the end of an exhalation. As a person inhales, that air is rapidly replaced with fresh air, and the sensor tries to respond to those rapidly changing conditions but cannot respond instantaneously to changes in concentration. Koehler said low readings on the sensor — which would set off a warning beep — are typically intermediate readings, as the sensor cannot respond quickly enough.
Parent Scott Mailhot said the board is breaching his constitutional rights with the mask mandate and said he does not believe the masks are actually doing anything to protect against COVID-19.
“This is no different than taking my underwear off and putting it on my head. ... Like, what are we doing? Is it fun to walk around town looking like a damn clown?” he said, adding that students are not able to concentrate well with masks on.
Eighth grader Eli Borg also voiced his opposition, telling board members he should not even have to be addressing them on this issue.
“This is no different than taking my underwear off and putting it on my head. ... Like, what are we doing? Is it fun to walk around town looking like a damn clown?”
— Scott Mailhot, parent
“The kids, what they wanted to do, I feel like we haven’t been asked, we haven’t been treated fairly by you six members of the school board,” Borg said. “Have you come into the classrooms and have you seen how kids don’t ask questions to their teachers because they can’t see their faces, or the teachers can’t see their faces?”
Borg, who said he has asthma and has a hard time wearing a mask, said he is not able to lift up his fellow students with a smile anymore and got a roaring round of applause from the audience after saying students should have a choice about wearing a mask.
Senior Macy Speer, on the other hand, spoke about how inconsequential masks are if it means she gets to stay in school with her peers all year. As a senior, she said she has only had one normal year of high school so far.
“I would do just about anything to spend as much time as possible in school,” Speer said. “... As we all know, a mask is a small piece of cloth worn on your face. It’s very simple. It is not sitting behind a computer on a Google Meet for hours every day, and it is not losing valuable connections with the people I love.”
Speer said masks are easy to wear, and the science behind them is simple.
“Let’s stop fighting with our own community. We are all in this together and will have better results if we act as a team,” Speer said, thanking the school board for taking hate if it means keeping the district safe and healthy.
District mom Hilary Johnson shared Speer’s sentiments, thanking the school board for listening to the many voices in the community and going above and beyond by working on an issue they likely did not sign up to handle.
“My kids are in school, and I’m grateful,” she said.