Minn. schools face contentious issues over wearing face masks

Published 5:19 pm Tuesday, August 17, 2021

ST. PAUL — Minnesota schools are divided on whether to require students and teachers to wear masks amid the summer surge of the highly infectious delta variant of the coronavirus.

Mask policies have been among the most contentious issues that school district leaders have faced this summer, Minnesota Public Radio reported. Some district leaders have even had to ask law enforcement for help maintaining calm at public board meetings where masking policies have been discussed and decided. But amid all the disagreement, health experts, school leaders and families agree that it’s important to prioritize getting kids into classes for in-person learning.

The summer surge of COVID-19 made for a disruptive start of the school year in many parts of the country Monday as hundreds of thousands of children returned to classrooms. Most Minnesota districts are still preparing.

The Fridley school district, for example, will require every person in their buildings to wear a mask regardless of vaccination status. One reason is that children under age 12 can’t get vaccinated yet.

“For us, that was a no-brainer. We are going to require masks for students,” district spokeswoman Jael McLemor said. “Almost 47 percent of our student population do not have access to vaccines.”

Deb Henton, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, said families are divided.

“One district I’m aware of, there was a petition for parents to have masks mandated in their school district and there was also a petition to not have masks mandated,” Henton said. “It’s become a very difficult decision for superintendents and school boards who are trying to follow the science and trying to keep their students and staff safe, but also very much aware of family sentiment.”

Minneapolis schools are also requiring everyone in their buildings to wear masks, regardless of vaccination status. St. Paul schools will vote on a similar policy. Duluth and Rochester schools have also said they will require face coverings. But those districts are in the minority.

“Most school districts across the state that I’m aware of are recommending mask wearing for their students and staff but they are not requiring it,” Henton said “Their constituencies are more supportive of having masks recommended, not required.”

The Anoka-Hennepin district, Minnesota’s largest, will recommend but not require masks. Superintendent David Law said he’s been trying to offer families the options they need to help them feel comfortable about returning to classes.

“We’re prepared to monitor classroom, building, district and county-level data and then respond with upping our safety measures. Law said. “Do I see us shifting to distance learning? I don’t today see a schoolwide shutdown or a districtwide shutdown like we had last year. But who knows? I’ve learned that you can’t predict two months ahead in a pandemic.”