Rochester Public Schools to require masking of younger students in the fall

People fill a room during a meeting.
People fill the room before a school board meeting in Rochester, Minn., on Tuesday. The board revised its mask mandate for many students in the district.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The board of Rochester Public Schools Tuesday revised its mask mandate for many students in the district.

Students between 2 and 12 years old will be required to wear masks inside all school facilities during the next academic year.

Interim Superintendent Kent Pekel said masks are needed to protect kids who aren't eligible for vaccines.

"When we have the opportunity as is anticipated to vaccinate younger children, and those rates of vaccination are sufficiently high, we could remove the requirement for our youngest learners,” Pekel said. “So I wish I could tell the board that this is the last time that you'd be dealing with this, but I think it's very likely that we need to continue to be responsive to this situation over time."

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Students 12 and older and Rochester Public Schools staff are encouraged, but not required to wear face coverings.

A person speaks at a table.
Parent Karin Charron speaks during the public comment section during the school board meeting. Charron spoke against a mask mandate for children in school and advocated for parental choice.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone in K-12 schools wear masks regardless of their vaccination status. The delta variant has become the dominant strain in Minnesota and in the U.S., leading to another rise in cases, hospitalizations and deaths in some places.

Even after the doors closed before the board meeting, there was a line well down the hall and outside for seating. In recent weeks, large groups have showed up at school board meetings to voice concerns about teaching critical race theory in schools, which Rochester doesn't, and masks.

And those same concerns were on display Tuesday night.

Karin Charron’s children have been learning at home because she doesn't want them to mask in school. Charron told the school board meeting she believes face coverings could interfere with social skills.

"They prevent communication and social interaction. They can impair language skills, they can cause anxiety, headaches and other symptoms," Charron said.

Luke Stevens-Royer, who has two young children in the district, said he and his kids support the policy.

A reverend speaks at a table.
The Rev. Luke Stevens-Royer opens the public comment section of the school board meeting Tuesday. Stevens-Royer spoke in support of masking as a public health measure and historically accurate teaching of U.S. history.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"They know how to wear masks and they know why. To keep themselves and others safe. It's a pretty basic lesson," Stevens-Royer said.

The district still needs to figure out social distancing rules, among other measures, in weeks to come.