by Mike Knaak
Students and staff should continue to wear masks during the school day if the alternative is having students quarantine. That was the recommendation from the Sartell-St. Stephen school district’s Covid committee.
The Covid situation has not improved in the last three weeks and it’s not time to take off masks, said Human Resources Director Krista Durrwachter who relayed the committee’s recommendation to the school board at a Dec. 1 work session. The current policy requires everyone to be masked in schools at all times.
The committee is made up of medical professionals, staff and parents. The group’s conclusion, Durrwachter said, was “if we can keep our kids in school by masking, let’s keep masking.” The committee recommended looking at case numbers after winter break and re-evaluating school-day masks.
As of Dec. 2, there were 70 student Covid cases and 14 staff cases in the district. The Nov. 25 report listed 77 student cases and 15 staff cases. As of Nov. 8, there were 57 student cases and 10 staff cases. On Nov. 4, there were 30 student cases and four staff cases. At the end of October, the weekly report showed 26 student cases and four staff cases on Oct. 28.
The board did discuss dropping the mask requirement for after-school activities. The mandate has been difficult to enforce, for example at sporting events, when parents and students from visiting teams ignore the rule. In addition, according to Minnesota State High School League rules, athletes don’t need to wear masks.
Board members reasoned that extracurricular activities are voluntary so parents can make a choice about student participation. But students have to attend class, so the universal mask rule is appropriate.
The board considered ending the mask requirement for outside the school day when students return from winter break on Jan. 3. No decision was made but board members asked the administrative team to work out details clarifying when the school day ends, what activities would be affected and to come up with consistent, easy to understand guidelines. For example, do students need to wear masks when they stay after school to work on a project or wait for a ride?
The board members stressed the need for clear guidelines so parents can plan and detailed policies for after-school activities and the quarantine procedure for close contacts.
Looking ahead to the time when school-day masking could end, board members asked the administrative team to develop guidelines for how close contacts and quarantines would be handled.
Board member Matt Moehrle, who is on the Covid committee, said doctors advised that vaccination is the best mitigation strategy. With vaccines now available starting with 5-year-olds, all students could be fully vaccinated when they return from winter break.
“Our job is to keep kids in school,” Superintendent Jeff Ridlehoover said. He said he’s cautiously “optimistic” about improving case numbers and the district needs a plan for when it’s time to be done with masks.