by Heidi L. Everett
On Aug. 18, St. Cloud School District Board of Education voted six to one to mandate masks while inside district buildings and using district transportation. The mandate went into effect Aug. 23.
“This gives us the best chance of keeping our students learning in person every day,” said Superintendent Willie Jett.
In-person learning benefits academic performance, and social and emotional well-being, he said.
Sartell-St. Stephen schools also implemented a masking mandate, while Sauk-Rapids Rice has made masking optional.
Following board precedence, 30 minutes were allocated at the meeting to hear from those advocating for and against mask mandates. During the open forum, five participants were randomly selected representing each side of the discussion.
Eight-year-old Jackson Benedict shared he didn’t want to wear a mask because it makes his glasses fog up, making it hard to see and learn.
Stephanie Peterson shared a message from her seventh-grader, Harper, who wrote masks “represent going back to school and hopefully not missing a soccer game because one of my classmates got sick, and we all had to quarantine.” The message continued, “We all dislike masks, but if it can keep any kids safe, then it is worth it.”
Rhiannon Knutson, a parent of four students in the district, said a mask mandate was needed to move forward and would take pressures and distractions off teachers and parents.
“If it’s something that everyone is expected to do then that’s the threshold,” she said.
Jill Swenson said a mask mandate sent the wrong message.
“We need to be building up confidence and boldness in our kids, not fear,” she argued. “We need to stop teaching our kids that the air around us is toxic, and everyone else around them is sick.”
Keith Ferguson suggested masks are pointless.
“The cloth mask that everybody’s running around with is not approved by any testing foundation and will not stop a virus period,” he said. He called them “worthless.”
Al Dahlgren, the board member who voted against the mandate, agreed.
“Wearing masks is like putting up a chain link fence to keep out mosquitoes,” he said. “They dehumanize kids.”
Matt Harkins, parent of two in the district, views masks differently.
“I think we all agree that we want our children to go to school in person and to learn in person, and we also want our children to be safe,” he said. “The two most powerful tools we have against the delta variant are masks and vaccines. Period. Our children under 12 at this moment currently cannot take vaccines. The only thing we have for them are masks. Please protect them by requiring masks.”
Retired educator Carol Jacobs talked about choice.
“It is not OK to dictate what another family chooses to do for their children,” she said.
Jama Alimad pointed out part of the district’s mission is to create a safe and caring environment.
“If we can be safe in our community, that will be a good choice,” she said.
Prior to the vote, Dahlgren asked why the district is listening to health officials and not parents when deciding protocols.
“Those people have a vested interest in saying yes, wear masks,” he said.
But a recent survey of District 742 parents about mask requirements was not a clear indicator.
Approximately 50 percent of respondents said no to masks, 30 percent said yes, and the remaining said they would do what the district says is best, Dahlgren said.
District 742 will revisit masking protocols at mid-trimester in October and at the end of the trimester in December.
Other mitigation strategies remain in place, including enhanced cleaning, three-foot distancing when possible, handwashing and respiratory etiquette, improving indoor air quality, using outdoor space and verifying staff vaccination status.
For now, all students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade will return to full-time in person learning, Tuesday, Sept. 7, masked up.