School resumes in Minnesota — with and without masks

a woman stands next to an elementary school
Wendy Moritz is the principal at Folwell Elementary School in Rochester, Minn., where — heading into the new school year — students and staff are required to wear masks inside.
Catharine Richert | MPR News

At Folwell Elementary School in southwest Rochester, students started their first day of classes wearing a cornucopia of colorful masks — some with rainbows or unicorns. Others in Minecraft-themed face coverings. 

As she lined up with the other kindergarteners, 5-year-old Julia Ties put on a mask with a unicorn and a rainbow on it. She was feeling "a little bit scared but mostly excited," she said.

Her mom, Jamee Ties, said she's confident her daughter will be safe from COVID-19 at school given all the precautions in place. She says her daughter's biggest challenge will be wearing masks again after a largely mask-free summer when the pandemic looked like it was over. 

"We actually got rid of most of our masks for a while there, so we had to go out and buy a whole bunch," Ties said.

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Rochester, like the majority of metro-area districts, has made masking a requirement this year. But that’s not the case in every public school district in the state. 

Living in a medical community that’s home to Mayo Clinic and Olmsted Medical Center influenced the district's plan, said Folwell principal Wendy Moritz. And so did getting feedback from parents, many of whom are tied to medicine in one way or another. 

In addition to other prevention measures, all students and staff have to wear masks inside Rochester Public Schools — regardless of vaccination status. 

"The collaboration we have felt as a school district together has really been phenomenal. It helps us access information and talk with so many different people to make really informed decisions," Moritz said.

a family poses for a photo outside school
The Prouty family sending off 5-year-old Eden Prouty to kindergarten at Folwell Elementary School in Rochester.
Catharine Richert | MPR News

Noel and Brittany Prouty dropped off their five-year-old daughter, Eden, at Folwell for her first day of kindergarten. Brittany, who works in Mayo's COVID-19 testing clinic, hopes masking will prevent another round of distance learning. 

"I don't think virtual online is healthy for children at all. Especially with me working full time and [Noel] working full time, it's just like if [Eden] has to go to virtual, I don't know what we're going to do," Prouty said.

As the kids filed into school, Moritz said that in the back of her mind, she's thinking five steps ahead on how they'll navigate yet another pandemic school year. But for the moment, she was content to bask in the excitement of her students. 

Outside of Braham Area Elementary, an hour north of the Twin Cities, students were greeted by upbeat music and colorful streamers on their first day back to school. 

Elementary students hopping off the bus in oversized backpacks all wore masks. But inside the building, many of them took off their face coverings as they hugged their teachers and found their new classrooms. 

At this pre-K through third grade building, where there are about 300 students, masks are recommended, but not required. And most students and staff chose to start the year without face coverings. 

Students in a classroom.
Students listen to their teacher, Kalyn Auth, on the first day of school in Braham, Minn., on Tuesday.
Elizabeth Shockman | MPR News

Jilliane Benner said she is relieved masks are not required this year. Her 6-year-old son, Khail, has a hard time saying goodbye. It’s a big deal for both of them that she could walk him to his class for a final hug. She’s hoping the district won’t return to masks or other COVID safety measures from last year.

“I’d like to be able to enjoy my kids’ school year alongside them,” Benner said. “Last year was really hard. It’s a very small school district. It’s not like we’re in Minneapolis where there’s 3,000 kids in one school, so I don’t worry as much being out here. It’s a little town. I hope that it stays normal this year.”

Inside one of Braham’s second grade classrooms, teacher Kalyn Auth greeted her students and handed out coloring sheets. Only one student was wearing a mask. State guidelines recommend everyone over 12 in Minnesota schools get the COVID-19 vaccine and wear a mask, regardless of vaccination. It’s also recommended that schools maintain at least 3 feet of physical distance between students in classrooms. 

“This school year we have to be very careful with COVID,” Auth told her students. “We’re going to come up to the rug, but we can’t have everybody come up since we have to be a little bit socially distanced.” 

Only about 50 percent of residents in Isanti County (where Braham is located) have received a COVID-19 vaccine. At a recent Braham school board meeting, dozens of parents showed up to demand the school not resume last year’s mask mandate. Superintendent Ken Gagner said for now, they’re not requiring face coverings. Although, there’s every possibility that could change.

“Masking is definitely one of those options,” Gagner said. “And then of course, if we get into a real high rate where [cases are] just ramping [up] through the entire district, going back into a virtual setting is a possibility — or simply closing school for a few days.”

A man walks toward a school bys.
Principal Jeff Eklund waits to greet students and families on the first day of school at Braham Area Elementary on Tuesday.
Elizabeth Shockman | MPR News

For now, though, Gagner and many of his colleagues are hoping for the best and excited to get students back in their classrooms. 

“We’re typical if you think outstate,” Gagner said. “I know it sounds almost stereotypical, but that’s really where we are. Our community I would say for the most part is, ‘Let’s get back to school. Let’s get back to normal.’ There’s not an overabundance of caution.”