'A very difficult decision': Minnesota schools divided on masking

School mask policies have been among the most contentious issues district leaders have faced this summer.

Students in masks play on tablets.
Second grade students at Wildwood Elementary set up tablets to take home for remote learning in Stillwater, Minn., on Sept. 10, 2020. In Minnesota, most school districts are recommending, not requiring masks.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2020

The Fridley public school district will require every person in their buildings to wear a mask when classes start this fall, regardless of vaccination status. Jael McLemore, who is Fridley’s director of communications, said it was a student-centered decision.

“For us, that was a no-brainer. We are going to require masks for students,” McLemore said. “Almost 47 percent of our student population do not have access to vaccines. So we have to think about what that looks like for them.”

McLemore said the majority of families in her district were in favor of mandating masks in school. 

“Our parents have been calling and emailing and asking and saying, ‘We want to know, because based on your answer, we are going to be making a decision as to where we are going to send our students.’ Because that’s important for them,” McLemore said.

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School mask policies have been among the most contentious issues district leaders have faced this summer. Some district leaders have even had to ask law enforcement for help maintaining calm at public board meetings where masking policies have been discussed and decided. 

Deb Henton, the executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, said families are divided. 

“One district I’m aware of, there was a petition for parents to have masks mandated in their school district and there was also a petition to not have masks mandated,” Henton said. “It’s become a very difficult decision for superintendents and school boards who are trying to follow the science and trying to keep their students and staff safe, but also very much aware of family sentiment.”

School masking policies tend to fall in one of three categories: required for all, recommended for all, or required for younger grades where students are ineligible for vaccines and recommended for older grades where students have the option to get vaccinated.

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 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.

A sign hangs on a doorway to an empty classroom.
Signs giving students tips on proper mask-wearing hang in the doorway of a classroom at Kennedy Elementary in Hastings, Minn., on Sept. 1, 2020.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2020

Local control

Guidance from state health officials on school masking policies seems to be intentionally vague. The language focuses on what individual people inside of school buildings should do, stating “All students, teachers, staff and visitors in school buildings should wear masks indoors regardless of vaccination status.”

But the guidance does not offer clarity on whether school administrators should make masking a requirement or a recommendation. 

In an email to MPR News, a state education official wrote that this is because the state education department wants to communicate that districts should choose “whatever approach...maximizes the protective practices on a day-to-day basis.”

Henton said the option to make masking policies a local decision is one school administrators asked for. 

“Generally speaking school districts and school boards are happy to have local control because, as we know, last year, COVID-19 pandemic displayed itself differently in different areas of the state at different times,” Henton said. 

But 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.” 

That puts many school leaders in a tough spot.

“It is an ethical dilemma. Our superintendents and school boards know what has been recommended by the CDC, by the department of education. And yet in some cases they are getting very strong opposition to those recommendations,” Henton added. “They are trying to figure out what is the best way to keep everybody safe while they’re in school while satisfying those individuals in their school districts that have different views than what they are recommending.”

‘Where do we go from here?’

The Anoka-Hennepin School District, Minnesota’s largest, will recommend but not require masks when classes open this fall. 

Superintendent David Law said he has heard from a small number of families about the district’s masking policy. Families seem to be evenly divided on whether or not they think face coverings should be a requirement. 

A child wearing a face mask stands with his arms apart.
Second grader Cody Yang spreads out his arms as he practices socially distancing while standing in the hallway Jan. 19 at Park Brook Elementary School in Brooklyn Park, Minn.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Law said he’s been carefully monitoring local virus spread and trying to offer families the options they need to help them feel comfortable about returning to classes. 

“I’m looking at the graph of communitywide spread. I watch that now like I used to watch the weather when we had storms coming,” Law said. “We are currently a little bit lower than we were the first week of school last year. We’re nowhere near the spikes in November and January and March.”

He and other school leaders don’t know what effect the delta variant will have on their community where 70 percent of those over 16 have been vaccinated. Law is hoping the vaccination progress will mean districts can avoid the mass in-person school shutdowns Minnesota experienced last fall. 

“We’re prepared to monitor classroom, building, district and county-level data and then respond with upping our safety measures. Law said. “Do I see us shifting to distance learning? I don’t today see a schoolwide shutdown or a districtwide shutdown like we had last year. But who knows? I’ve learned that you can’t predict two months ahead in a pandemic.”

There are other concerns school leaders are thinking about when it comes to a return to in-person classes during a delta-variant surge. 

For one, COVID-19 spread isn’t just a matter of shutting down classes. Deb Henton said it means a lot of work and uncertainty for school staff. 

“Most of the contact tracing ended up falling on school staff,” Henton said. “We had nurses that were making calls all day long. In some cases they were treated very rudely and so school leaders are very worried they’ll have to do a lot of contact tracing again, which takes time away from doing other procedures in the school that are necessary and beneficial to our kids.” 

Amid all the disagreement on mask policies, most families, students, health experts and school leaders agree on one thing: it’s important to prioritize getting kids into classes for in-person learning this year. 

But Henton wonders what the disagreement on masking will mean for the ability of public schools to continue providing education into the future. 

“Where do we go from here? Last year we had mandates. This year we have local decision-making. What is it going to be like for families that are in a district that has one set of requirements and their next-door neighbors who happen to be in another district have a different set of requirements? That’s what’s concerning to a number of superintendents,” Henton said. “That’s what happens with local decision-making.”