BEMIDJI -- Following a lively public comment period and in front of a larger than usual crowd, the Bemidji school board voted to institute a mask mandate for the district, regardless of vaccination status.
During a special meeting on Wednesday evening, Aug. 25, the Bemidji Area Schools Board of Education voted 5-1 to enforce a resolution that all students, staff and visitors attending Bemidji Area Schools wear masks regardless of vaccination status for the 2021-2022 school year.
This vote was carried out after public participation where five members of the public spoke out against mandated masking while three spoke in support.
Of the five against mandated masking, two of them were members of the Bemidji Parent’s Union, an organization that opposes mandatory masking for children in the district.
“Masks may sound perfectly harmless, but so did asbestos which wasn’t discovered to be dangerous until years of widespread use,” said Marie Claire Richey, a member of the Bemidji Parent’s Union. “So, let’s not be so blindly certain.”
“We need to care for one another and make decisions based on science,” community member and former nurse Mary Fairbanks said. “We are seeing health care professionals leaving their work because of all the COVID we’re seeing. I spoke with a nurse this weekend who works at Sanford who says that the ICU is full.”
Fairbanks’ statement was met with some interjections from the crowd that was overflowing from the meeting room into the hallway after reaching its 75-person capacity.
Board chair Ann Long-Voelkner reminded the public to observe common courtesy several times during the meeting and an audience member was asked to leave after an outburst exclaiming, “They should choose whether to wear a mask,” with local law enforcement on hand.
The meeting ran smoothly otherwise and the board’s discussion regarding a mask mandate for the district proved productive.
During the board’s discussion, Dr. David Wilcox, vice president medical officer at Sanford Health of Northern Minnesota, spoke to the board and answered questions regarding masking and quarantine recommendations. Wilcox described an expected surge in mid-to-late-September of Delta variant cases that he expects masking can help deter.
“Due to circulation of the Delta variant, (the CDC) recommends masking for those 2 and over regardless of vaccination status,” Wilcox said. “Masking will help when the inevitable case comes up and the surrounding students don’t need to leave school.”
The Minnesota Department of Health adjusted their recommendation for contact tracing and quarantine requirements so that a close contact would not need to quarantine if they were wearing a mask.
Weighing their options
The board was presented four options regarding masking at its Aug. 16 meeting, including:
All students, staff and visitors must wear masks regardless of vaccination status
Staff and students for grades K-5 must wear masks
All students, staff and visitors who are not vaccinated must wear masks
All students, staff and visitors are recommended to wear masks
At that meeting, the board ultimately decided to wait to vote on the decision until they had collected more data about the spread of the Delta variant, to weigh their options and to allow for more public comment.
On Wednesday, after much discussion among the board, a motion was made by board member Jeff Lind to vote on option two, which would mandate masks for students K-5 and all staff and visitors, though no one chose to second the motion.
Board member Sarah Young commented that “the best way is masks for now until the (COVID cases) go down, so I’d propose option one.” This option would require all students, staff and visitors to wear masks regardless of vaccination status.
Young made a motion to vote on this option after which member Carol Johnson seconded.
Board member Gabriel Warren proposed an amendment to this option to include exceptions for when students are outside and where the administration deems it necessary.
Another amendment was proposed by board member Jeff Haack so that quarantine for students would last a maximum of 10 days instead of 14, assuming a student is still asymptomatic at the end of that timeframe.
Wilcox returned to the podium several times during the amendment process and made note of a student being exposed to the virus being able to return to school after seven days if they have a negative COVID test result.
Warren seconded Haack’s amendment to shorten the quarantine period recommended by MDH guidelines while Haack seconded Warren’s amendment to include the removal of masks when outdoors.
The board voted to accept the amended resolution with five yes-votes and one no-vote from Lind, much to the displeasure of the present crowd.
Long-Voelkner expressed that she recognizes the changing conditions relating to COVID and that this resolution is what the district will follow for now, leaving an opportunity for the board to reevaluate the mandate in the future.
With some public members already leaving, Young made a motion to adjourn the meeting with Bemidji Area Schools’ new mask mandate in place for the upcoming school year.
The board is hopeful that the district’s new mandate will help with absentee rates that the district was affected by this past year.
“The intent is to keep kids in school as much as possible,” Superintendent Tim Lutz said. “We want the fewest number of kids to need to quarantine and for the least amount of time allowed.”