Health official’s conflicting comments on masks raise questions before Edina school forum

A leading proponent of the effectiveness of compelling students and staff to wear masks at Edina schools in public meetings for parents has characterized protective masks as “the least effective mitigation we’re implementing” behind closed doors with his staff, according to a whistleblower who contacted American Experiment.

Nick Kelley, director of Bloomington Public Health, advises Edina and two other school districts on COVID policies, including the Edina district’s “universal masking” mandate, a source of controversy for some parents.

Kelley will help lead a community forum for Edina school families and employees at 6 p.m. tonight at Valley View Middle School as “part of the district’s continuing effort to analyze COVID mitigation strategies in place, including universal masking, and to listen to community concerns.”

At an Aug. 2 “Return to School” webinar on the district’s proposed COVID plan, Kelley urged parents to get their kids vaccinated, calling it the “cornerstone” to containing COVID. Next up in his presentation, Kelly unveiled a list of best practices for schools to follow in preventing the spread of the virus, emphasizing masks were the most important tool of all.

“They’re called best practices because this is the evidence-based data we have for driving how to protect kids in school environments based on experiences we saw in the last two school years,” Kelley said in the August meeting posted on YouTube. “Masking is at the top of that list. The ability to have source control and some aspect of protection for the wearer is a phenomenal tool to control a respiratory pathogen like COVID.”

Yet in a closed door meeting of Bloomington Public Health staff the week school began, Kelley appeared to offer a markedly different view of the usefulness of mandatory masking at schools, according to a watchdog who attended the virtual meeting.

“In terms of purely broad effectiveness, the least effective mitigation we’re implementing in this process is masking,” Kelley said in a recording provided by the watchdog. “Masking, the quality of the consistency of the fit, all those things are highly variable in a population setting.”

In the Sept. 3 recorded staff meeting, Kelley candidly elaborated on why relying on masks for mitigation can be hit-and-miss at schools, particularly among younger students.

“[Masks are] incredibly effective in a healthcare setting when you’re wearing certain kinds issued gear and things of that nature,” Kelley said. “But at an elementary school level, I know from dropping my kids off, I see kids wearing dirty old masks, cloth masks that look like they don’t fit and they have a half inch gap under their chin to high quality masks to the equivalent to respirators, Kn94s and Kn95s. So there’s a wide gamut.”

In responding to an email requesting comment about his seemingly conflicting evaluation of masks in public versus what he’s told his staff in private, Kelley said “the more layers of mitigation we use, the better protected we will be.”

“Remarks made in August about masks noted they were high on the list of mitigations, as COVID-19 vaccines for children age 11 and younger were not yet available. Masking at that time was a priority for parents as it was something they could do to minimize risks to their children. Other interventions were, and still are, in the control of the school district to implement.”

“Remarks in September were in response to a question about other mitigation levers that exist for schools, in addition to masking. Given the phrasing of the question, the response focused on ways to control the hazard from an infection control standpoint, using the hierarchy of controls that protect people from illness and other hazards. This included steps that school districts could take, including maximizing airflow and exploring policies for vaccination and screening of symptoms.”

The whistleblower felt compelled to come forward out of a conviction parents have a right to know what officials who are directly responsible for making COVID mitigation strategies in the classroom are saying, especially if it conflicts with what they’re telling the public at large.

“The most important thing for public health is that we have the trust of the public,” the whistleblower said. “How can we give guidance and advice to people if they don’t trust us? I think we always need to be transparent and open with people with the public about what works and doesn’t work.”

A recent email from Kelley obtained by American Experiment regarding tonight’s public meeting underscores the district’s sensitivity to the continuing controversy over the mask mandate.

“Superintdent (sic) is looking to dispel some myths about masks harming kids and set context on mental well-being,” Kelley wrote.