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Brainerd schools to begin phasing out mask mandate

Middle and high school students will no longer be required to wear masks beginning Feb. 21. Early childhood and elementary students will follow suit the following week.

Heidi Hahn sits at a table during a board meeting.
Assistant Superintendent Heidi Hahn udpates Brainerd School Board members on COVID-19 numbers in the district during their meeting Monday, Feb. 14, 2022.
Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

BRAINERD — Masks are coming off.

Beginning Monday, Feb. 21, middle and high school students and staff at Brainerd Public Schools will no longer be required to wear face coverings at school. The requirement will lift for early childhood elementary staff and students the following week.

School Board members made the decision during their meeting Monday, Feb. 14, after hearing COVID-19 cases declined significantly over the past three weeks to single-digit numbers at the middle and high school levels.

“We knew it was going to come down. I don’t think we knew it was going to come down this quickly,” Assistant Superintendent Heidi Hahn told board members Monday.

As of Monday, there were four active COVID-19 cases at Brainerd High School and two at Forestview Middle School. There were 65 positive cases in the district the week of Feb. 5-11, down from 114 the previous week and more than 150 the last full week in January. These decreases come after significant but expected upticks in cases in early January after winter break, producing the highest number of cases since the beginning of the school year.

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“It’s good news, and it’s following the trend that we’re seeing across the state as well,” Hahn said.

Board members agreed last month on a plan to begin reducing masking requirements in phases if districtwide cases decrease for three consecutive weeks and stay under 50. The first phase of the unmasking plan was already put into place in November, no longer requiring face coverings for after-school high school activities. The next steps in the plan, which board members reviewed in January are:

  • Phase 2: Community facility use (non-school sponsored activities) and after-school middle school activities.
  • Phase 3: During the school day for high school students.
  • Phase 4: During the school day for middle school students.
  • Phase 5: During the school day for early childhood and elementary students, targeted services, Fun ‘N Friends, early childhood and family education activities.

With numbers as low as they are — particularly in the middle and high school — Hahn said Monday the question becomes whether it’s necessary to wait for cases to drop even lower to begin removing masks.
The initial recommendation from administrators Monday was to implement phases 2 and 3 of the plan Tuesday, Feb. 15, moving from requiring masks for high school students and middle school activities to only strongly recommending them. Board member Charles Black Lance suggested adding phase 4 and perhaps even 5, as many of his concerns from the beginning of the year when the mask mandate was put in place have been alleviated, while other board members worried about not giving families even time to prepare for the change.

It’s good news, and it’s following the trend that we’re seeing across the state as well,
Assistant Superintendent Heidi Hahn

While Hahn said the district has KN95 masks available for students and staff who want them, board member Jana Shogren said she was concerned about the school nursing staff getting inundated with requests for those masks tomorrow if there are students who want them but do not have time to procure them for themselves.

“I know this is a great relief to some people, but again, for some people it is a concern, and I think we owe parents more than tonight to plan for it,” Shogren said.

Board member Sarah Speer agreed with Shogren, saying she did not want families to feel like they were having the rug pulled out from under them overnight.

The board heard from three parents during the public forum portion of Monday’s meeting, asking for the mask mandate to be repealed immediately. On the other hand, Board Chair Ruth Nelson said she has also gotten emails from families who have immunocompromised people in their household and are in favor of continued masking.

Board members Kevin Boyles and Tom Haglin were not present Monday, but Nelson said she heard earlier in the day from Boyles, who said he was in favor of moving forward with phases two and three, and Hahn said she had heard from Haglin, who was in favor of lifting the mandate for all grade levels.

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Hahn reminded the board that students do not have classes Friday or Monday and said next Tuesday could be a good day to begin implementing the phases to give families more time. Black Lance said he understood the desire to give a little more notice but added that he would be comfortable repealing the mandate for elementary students next week as well.

Hahn said it could make sense to take masks off for middle and high school students at the same time, as their school sizes and case numbers are similar, and vaccines have been available for a majority of students in those grades for quite some time.

Nelson said she was concerned about adding in elementary students at the same time, though, because of the number of KN95 masks available. Hahn said the district currently has 2,500 and is expected to receive more soon.

The board ultimately agreed to move forward with Phase 2 beginning Tuesday, Feb. 15, meaning masks will no longer be required for non-school sponsored events at district facilities or for after-school middle school activities. Phases 3 and 4 will go into effect Monday, Feb. 21, for all middle and high school staff and students. Even though students do not have class until Tuesday, teachers will be at school Monday.

The last phase will go into effect Feb. 28 for early childhood and elementary students and staff, targeted services, Fun ‘N Friends and early childhood and family education activities.

Speer said she felt comfortable with the move, as the district has other mitigation measures in place, and she noted masking could still be an option for specific pods or classrooms if case numbers warranted it.

For data on COVID-19 cases and trends in the district, including numbers for each building, visit isd181.org/covid19 .

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa .

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Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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