Orientation runs smoothly: Students, parents follow mask mandate
The face covering requirement at Brainerd Public Schools went into effect Monday, Aug. 30.
When seventh and eighth grade students and their families made their way to orientation Tuesday, Aug. 31, at Forestview Middle School, their faces were once again covered with masks, as it was the second day of the district’s indoor face covering requirement.
Those who came without masks grabbed one on their way in before going to meet with teachers.
School board members approved the mask mandate during their meeting Aug. 25 on a vote of 4-1, with Chair Ruth Nelson absent and board member Tom Haglin opposed.
District officials reminded the public of the new policy with a letter Monday, Aug. 30 — the day it went into effect. While Assistant Superintendent Heidi Hahn said the district was planning to send a reminder out to begin with, after hearing rumblings on social media of concerted efforts to resist the face covering requirement, officials added in the letter warnings of repercussions for those who refuse to follow the policy.
“There’s been some rumor that it’s a violation of federal law to have a face covering policy in place, and that’s not a violation of federal law. We’ve consulted with our legal team, and we’re not violating any federal laws,” Hahn said during a phone interview Tuesday.
The face covering requirement is just like any other district policy, she said. If someone is not willfully following it, district leaders will do their best to educate, inform and remind. Masks will also be available for those who do not have one.
“We’ll offer a face covering. Hopefully they’ll voluntarily take that. If they refuse to take that face covering, again, we’ll try to remind. Students are different, right? We’re dealing with all ages of children, from littles to bigs, so there’s obviously different ways we would approach that if they continue to refuse,” Hahn said. “The plan is then if it’s a student, then the parent may need to come pick up that student from school — so it’s like if it was another behavior issue. If it’s a repeated issue, then we have policies. It’s called progressive discipline, so there’s things that we could look to put in place because, again, right now there’s a face covering policy in place at Brainerd Public Schools that we need to follow.”
If a volunteer, parent or other visitor to the district is the one failing to comply, Hahn said they might first be asked to conduct their business outside — as masks are only required indoors — or could be told to leave. And if they do not leave the premises, they could be considered trespassing.
“Because public places are public until they’re not,” Hahn said.
“We wanted to make sure we could get every kid in the door and give them the best opportunity to start without having to have massive quarantine.”
— Heidi Hahn, assistant superintendent
School board member Kevin Boyles likened the policy to a student wearing an inappropriate shirt to school. That student will be asked to remedy the situation, and if they don’t, more action will be taken.
Boyles said he hasn’t had much contact with anyone planning to try to skirt the mandate since the vote but has fielded questions about enforcement, which he said the district’s statement clearly answered.
Before voting on the policy, Boyles said the communication he received from parents and community members was not necessarily skewed to one side. There were plenty of people asking for a mandate and plenty asking not to have one.
“Since the board meeting, I was kind of surprised. I thought I would get just crushed with all the anti-mandate people, but the reality is … we’re getting lots of ‘thank you’s’ too, and they’re roughly similar. I mean, it’s statistically irrelevant if you asked me to say who’s the winner in this.”
Those who have medical or behavioral exemptions, signed off on by a medical professional, will be exempt from the face covering requirement.
Putting the requirement in place was a decision not taken lightly by administrators who recommended it or board members who voted on it.
“I have three jobs — three main jobs on the school board,” Boyles said. “One, be a good steward and prudent steward of the tax dollars and the revenues that the school district manages. Two, do what I can to increase the achievement scores and the educational output of every student in our school district. And No. 3, to provide a safe and healthy working environment for our teachers and staff and learning environment for our kids.”
While people can argue about whether Boyles and the rest of the board do that job right, he feels he is doing his job.
The decision was also made, Hahn said, by taking Crow Wing County COVID-19 numbers into account, which is the only data the district has right now. Once students are back in school, though, the district can learn about how the situation might differ from building to building. Because kids 12 and older can be vaccinated, for example, the climate at the middle and high schools may be very different than at the elementary level.
District officials also took into account that if students are wearing properly fitted face coverings and someone tests positive, the entire classroom does not have to quarantine — only the student who is sick would have to.
“So we wanted to make sure we could get every kid in the door and give them the best opportunity to start without having to have massive quarantine,” Hahn said. “And we wanted a chance to get our data locally by building. And then we can start to make decisions based on what’s happening building by building.”
The Brainerd lakes area being a popular tourist destination, and the recent occurrences of the Crow Wing County Fair and Lucas Oil Nationals at Brainerd International Raceway also played into the district’s decision, Hahn said, as did the existence of the delta variant, which seems to be spreading much faster and easier than the original coronavirus.
“We don’t want to open school like some of our partners have and then have to shut down,” she said. “We want to start, and we want to stay all day, every day, and then hopefully if things settle down, which I anticipate they will, then we can go back to strongly recommend.”
Lastly, Hahn said she does not envy families for the position they are in and does not see the face covering requirement as a matter of not respecting people’s choices and opinions.
“Unfortunately, as a district, when you’re responsible for 6,700 kids and 1,300 staff, it was a decision that the school board felt that we need to have in place, as was the recommendation from our superintendent,” Hahn said.
When asked for comment, board member Charles Black Lance said he would rather let administrators speak. The rest of the board members could not be reached for comment.
For more information on the district’s COVID-19 policy, visit isd181.org/ .
THERESA BOURKE may be reached at email@example.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa .