Lesson learned? Most Minnesota schools will not mandate masks for now

It’s now a given among educators that schools must resume and continue providing in-person learning in the classroom this fall at all costs. The damage to students’ education and socialization as a result of separating them from friends and teachers during the pandemic has become all too apparent.

But the conditions under which students and staff return to class remains a touchy subject, especially whether or not to mandate masks. At a recent school board meeting of Prior Lake Savage Area Schools on the issue, one of the district’s nurses stunned the audience by announcing her resignation due to differences over the district’s COVID-related policies during the pandemic.

I am here tonight to give you my resignation,” RN and school nurse Shannon Davis told the board . “I have tried really hard to support the children during this past year but the mandates, regulations and policies that were put on the children goes against my beliefs, morals and my oath as a mother and as a nurse. Last year did nothing to help the physical, emotional, mental health safety or education of these children. It harmed and hurt them.”

The state health department recommends masks, but leaves it up to individual districts to decide for themselves. While some of the biggest school districts around the state will require masks despite vaccination status, most schools will not, according to MPR.

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

But those districts are in the minority, said [executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators Deb] Henton.

“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. Their constituencies are more supportive of having masks recommended, not required,” Henton said.

For example, the Prior Lake Savage district’s Back-to-School Safe Learning Plan recommends, but does not require masks in school.

“We’ll monitor local data and we’ll continue meeting weekly with Scott County public health as well as with MDH as needed and we are in this together,” Superintendent Teri Staloch said. “So we want to encourage everyone to do all that they can to help reduce the spread, so we can keep our kids in schools and have an exceptional year this year.”

The standing room only crowd at the last school board meeting shows how high tensions run among parents and students with the new school year almost here. Many applauded when a student athlete on the school’s cross country championship team praised the board for giving families a choice.

“I want to thank you for the brave decision you guys made at sending us back to school normally,” cross country team member Hootie Hage told the board . “You’ve said Prior Lake students and their families can make the decision for themselves. I’ll be honest it took courage to stand up here today. I’m asking the same of you in the months to come. Please do not change the district mask policy.”

Others argued the recent increase in COVID variant cases means more stringent measures may need to be taken.

“Let’s work together to make our community safe and our kids and teachers in school,” said Shannon Smith, a Savage resident. “Don’t want to wear a mask? Get vaccinated, make smart decisions and help stop the community spread. But when we have substantial and high spread, mask up. Make the right choices to make our children in person learning safe.”

The shift to more local control over COVID policies in schools inevitably puts the onus on school districts to give more consideration to parents, who have other schooling options available to them in many cases.

For some school leaders, the decision about masking policies has been influenced not only by local case counts, but by the opinions of families in the community and the threat those opinions pose to maintaining enrollment. 

“Requiring masks is going to lead to some families definitely disenrolling their students, perhaps going to homeschool, going to a private school, going somewhere where masks are not mandated,” said Henton. “So superintendents are very much aware of that and school boards, but they cannot let that drive their decision.” 

The new school year will be a test not only of how much academic ground students have to make up from last year, but of whether school leaders have learned to better work with parents after the policy mistakes of the pandemic.