Board approves new mask guidelines starting Feb. 21

Published 9:45 pm Monday, February 14, 2022

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Guidelines based on attendance numbers for each school


In the midst of steeply declining cases of COVID-19 in the school system, Austin Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Joey Page recommended to the board Monday night that they institute new guidelines toward mask wearing in district buildings.

Page’s proposal is that beginning Feb. 21, if county data is above the threshold of positive case rates of 100 per 100,000 people and the school level absence rates are above a monthly average by 100% or more, masks will continue to be required.

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However, if both of those indicators are not met, masks would only be recommended. Each school within the district would be considered on an independent basis based on its own numbers.

The board, after considering the recommendation, agreed to the plan along a 5-2 vote, with board members Katie Ulwelling and Peggy Young voting “no.”

As of last Friday’s report from Page, the district reported its fourth consecutive drop in active case numbers since APS reported 183 cases the week of Jan. 8, when the county was at the height of its most recent COVID-19 surge.

Last week, the report reflected just 16 active cases, down from 48 cases the week before. The decline in the district follows trends across Minnesota and the nation, but while a majority of the board voted in favor of the new recommendation, there were serious concerns raised by board members as to timing.

Attendance numbers would be looked at in each building earlier in the week, with attendance numbers being pulled as late Wednesday night. However, masking guidelines for specific schools wouldn’t be instituted until the following week.

“I’m not sure why we’re waiting an entire week after we get the data to implement,” Young noted. “If we know Monday and Tuesday those numbers are high, why are we not masking on Thursday?”

Young’s concern is that if the district waits to implement guidelines for specific schools, then that leaves a full week for possible increased spread; however, Corey Haugen, director of Information Services, pointed out that it would be hard to make such a quick turnaround.

“Realistically, trying to get numbers to make the adjustment for a Thursday is not feasible,” he said.

At the same time, Ulwelling raised the specter of another surge like the one the district and county went through after Christmas break, pointing out that spring break isn’t that far down the road.

“We saw the surge after Christmas break and we’re coming up on spring break,” Ulwelling argued. “I’m just not feeling comfortable with the timing piece.”

The reason the board was considering the recommendation in the first place is that it is one of the metrics for accurately gauging COVID spread in the district.

Results of at-home testing are not consistently reported to school personnel, something state and local officials have also pointed out. Unlike testing at hospitals or government-sponsored testing sites, which are reported to the Minnesota Department of Health, at-home testing is not.

In regard to saliva testing, results from those tests can take three to six days to come back.

On the flip side, the district can use consistent attendance taking to calculate monthly attendance rates and apply thresholds to each school.

For example, Haugen pointed to a graph that looked at absence rates for elementary schools from January 2019 and 2020 — both before the pandemic — that were 4.8% and 8.2% respectively. That came out to a 6.5% average and that average doubled comes to a threshold of 13%. Should an elementary school reflect an absence over that 13%, then masks would be required. Anything under and mask-wearing is recommended.

While Board Chair Kathy Green admitted there is more work to be done, at the same time she felt that it was something the board and administration could work with.

“It seems like that’s something we can work into to see what’s working and what’s not working,” she said. 

A motion was made by Board Member Angie Goetz to institute the recommendation immediately, but the motion was voted down by a vote of 5-2 as board members worried that the district would be acting prematurely. Board Member Cece Kroc advocated for more time to ensure that the drop is maintained.

“I like the idea of having two more weeks to settle a little bit more and tweak some things that we may need to tweak,” she said.