COVID-19 spread causes some school districts to change policies

Kids space apart while they walk in hallway
Students use tape on the hallway floor to socially distance while walking to the cafeteria Jan. 19, 2021 at Park Brook Elementary School in Brooklyn Park.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News File

In July, Mounds View Public School officials sent emails to families, telling them the district would only recommend, not require people to wear masks in school buildings.

“As we’ve learned over the past 18 months, guidance can change quickly depending on the spread of COVID-19 and our local conditions. This decision reflects our current intentions, but it is subject to change,” Superintendent Chris Lennox and board chair Jonathan Weinhagen wrote in an email to district families and staff.

In just over two weeks, those intentions had indeed changed. The district announced it would require students, staff and visitors to wear masks in its school buildings, regardless of vaccination status.

“Ramsey County Public Health now states that schools should require masks,” Mounds View’s email to district families read, “We hope conditions will improve in the near future so masks will no longer be necessary.”

By now the majority of Minnesota districts have announced their back-to-school COVID-19 safety protocols, including masking policies. Some, like Mounds View, have reversed earlier decisions.

Scott Croonquist, who’s the Executive Director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts estimates that two-thirds of Twin Cities districts instituted policies that require masking inside school buildings. But he said that may change as time goes on.

“It’s an evolving situation,” Croonquist said. “Given the surge we’ve seen in the delta variant and the rising number of cases, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are still a few changes to be made between now and the start of the school year.”

One district bases COVID policy on flu response

In the St. Francis public school district, about 30 minutes north of the Twin Cities, school leaders have announced that masks will be optional for students and staff. That’s a decision district Superintendent Beth Giese said came after conducting a survey of families and district staff. Only 10 percent of district survey respondents said they were in favor of making masks a requirement.

“We are standing quite firm on the decision that we will allow our families to make those decisions on what’s best for them,” Giese said. “What’s unfortunate is that, when we make choices, it impacts others. And that always really weighs heavy on me.”

Like many Minnesota school leaders, Giese is closely watching county case rates. If the seven-day case rate per 10,000 rises above 50, her district plans to require masks for preschool through fifth grade students. If that rate goes above 100, she said everyone in the school will be required to mask.

“We do have levels and thresholds that we consider to be problematic,” Giese said. “Our district has looked at it from the angle of, what did we do when we had the flu?”

Minnesota officials have warned that the delta variant may mean more outbreaks in schools. And districts in other states have had to close because of the coronavirus.

But in St. Francis this year, COVID-19 contingency plans are similar to what influenza outbreak plans have been in the past. District officials are asking families to get themselves tested when necessary and follow their provider’s advice on quarantining. School staff will not contact trace and they will not require close contacts of individuals who’ve tested positive to quarantine — with the exception of family members.

Giese said she is prepared to change plans if COVID spreads in her region and public health officials advise her to switch gears — even if it happens just before students return.

“If this variant hits my community, I am moving (to change things),” Giese said. “I am getting a little nervous ... two weeks (before the start of school) is a really long time for things to switch.”

‘We have to be nimble’

Roseville Public School district officials last week announced they would require everyone to wear masks in their buildings at the start of the academic year. According to district communications director Josh Collins, this is a change from their summer masking policy, but not a change to previously announced plans for the 2021-2022 school year.

“All of last year we really followed very closely what the state department of health and CDC were recommending and that has never been something we’ve strongly considered changing,” Collins said.

“Not being in school was challenging for a lot of kids, it was challenging for a lot of parents. We believe that being masked and having that required mask, given the current circumstances with delta variant, is going to allow us to keep (students) in school.”

Unlike St. Francis, the majority of Roseville’s public school families expressing an opinion on masking said they are in favor of making masks a requirement.

But the district shares some similarities with St. Francis and other Minnesota schools in that its policies on quarantining and ending in-person classes are very different from what they were a year ago. Under current policies, districts likely will deal with COVID-19 outbreaks on an individual basis and classroom-by-classroom or building-by-building.

Still, Collins said that policy may change.

“If we’ve learned anything over the last nearly 18 months of dealing with a global pandemic, it’s that our understanding of the virus, our understanding of what public health measures are really important to take is evolving,” Collins said. “We’ve gotten used to the idea of being very nimble and having to react quickly.”

‘Crisis-fatigued’

The stress of returning to school in the third academic year affected by a global pandemic, only a year out from unrest that followed the murder of George Floyd, is something that many school leaders say is taking a toll on students, families and educators.

A recent University of Minnesota survey polled over 10,000 K-12 students, families and school teachers in May and June of this year. It found that all respondents were in agreement that mental health needs are a top concern.

“We need to take this feedback about mental health seriously. And we can’t just return to school in the fall as we’ve done it in the past,” said University of Minnesota Principal in Residence, Katie Pekel.

Roseville district leaders focus back-to-school professional development on social-emotional learning. They’re planning to bring students in to talk about their experiences so teachers can better prepare to meet whatever needs come up.

“I think a lot of our students and our families are just crisis-fatigued,” Collins said. “The social-emotional needs are really significant.”

In St. Francis, Giese said the district is using some of its federal COVID-19 relief funding to hire more mental health professionals. They’re also trying to focus staff development on well-being, bringing in an author to speak to teachers at a back-to-school event.

“The toll this has taken on educators plus bus drivers, educational assistants — the mental health of my staff is my priority this year,” Giese said.    

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