Starting Tuesday, Nov. 9, face coverings will no longer be required at most after-school high school activities at Brainerd Public Schools.
Assistant Superintendent Heidi Hahn described the move as a safe starting point for rolling back COVID-19 mitigation strategies as the district sees a stabilization of case numbers.
“When we talked about what would be a safe starting point — or safe entry point — where we did watch that data, it made the most sense. Vaccinations for older students have been available for a long time, if that’s something that a family would choose to do,” Hahn told the Brainerd School Board Monday as she recommended making the change.
The district’s total active cases per 10,000 people — a metric Crow Wing County uses to measure cases — was 58.7 for the week of Oct. 27-Nov. 2. That’s down from 62.8 the previous week and the same number seen in mid-October. The district is experiencing lower rates than the county overall, which for Oct. 27-Nov. 2 saw 91.7 cases per 10,000.
When the school board approved its face covering mandate before school began this year, board members and administrators agreed to track the district’s data and stop requiring masks as soon as possible based on an approved matrix. When the district’s case rate is higher than 50, the matrix says face coverings will be required indoors for students ages 2 and up, regardless of vaccination status, and the district’s incident command team will meet to determine additional mitigation strategies and recommendations. Until Tuesday, face coverings were required in all district facilities, though athletes did not have to wear them while competing in sports.
With the shift — which the board members present agreed to Monday — anyone in ninth through 12th grade activities after 3:30 p.m. will be strongly encouraged to wear a face covering but not required to, unless the event is at the Gichi-ziibi Center for the Arts. This means spectators at sporting events will not have to wear masks, but those attending concerts, plays and other performances at the Gichi-ziibi will still have to. Singing and musical performances at the performing arts center, Hahn said, carry more of a risk of transmission through droplets.
Hahn said she feels this move is a good starting point because the district now has COVID-19 data specific to each school building, and vaccines are widely available for students, especially those in high school. The district has also not seen in-school COVID-19 transmission, she said.
Sporting events — which Hahn noted are not required like school attendance is — will continue to be livestreamed for those who do not want to or cannot attend in person.
If the shift results in an uptick in cases — something administrators will closely monitor — Hahn said the district would have the right to reinstate the face covering requirement.
Board member Jana Shogren said she was on board with the recommendation and felt it was a safe first step.
Board member Tom Haglin — who was the lone vote against the face covering mandate in the first place — said he was in favor of removing masks but did not understand how this move made sense, especially as the district’s case numbers have not come down into a lower category on the matrix.
“It just seems odd to me that in a classroom, you’ve got to wear a mask, but then afterwards you don’t have to,” Haglin said. “... I would think that the risk of sitting on the bench or in a pack watching a baseball game, I would think the risks are just as great to spread COVID as they would be — or even more — than in a classroom. So it doesn’t make any sense to me. I’m all in favor of the recommendation because it’s a step forward, but boy, it just seems completely backwards to what we should really be doing.”
Hahn said other districts around the state with mask mandates in place are looking at similar moves in getting rid of the mask requirement for non-compulsory events. Board Chair Ruth Nelson said she was comfortable with the move because it is for events that are not mandatory, and board member Charles Black Lance said he was on board, as it seemed like a good entry point.
Board member Kevin Boyles was not present at the meeting.
Per federal requirements, face coverings must still be worn on public transportation — including school buses — through at least Jan. 18.
For the most up-to-date COVID-19 information at Brainerd Public Schools, visit isd181.org/covid19.