St. Paul school board votes to keep mask mandate

22 March 2022

Students in St. Paul Public Schools must continue to wear masks in class after the school board voted 3-2 Tuesday to maintain its indoor mask mandate.

Board Chair Jim Vue and Vice Chair Jennifer Kopp voted in favor of a resolution that would have allowed district officials to drop masking requirements in schools starting Monday. Board members Chauntyll Allen, Uriah Ward and Halla Henderson voted against the measure.

Board members Jeanelle Foster and Zuki Ellis were absent during Tuesday’s board meeting.

The vote comes as officials in Minneapolis and St. Paul dropped masking requirements in city-run buildings and weeks after businesses in the Twin Cities were allowed to drop theirs.

That means St. Paul is the largest school district in the state — and one of the few large districts in the country — to require masks in schools regardless of vaccination status.

New York City schools have been mask-optional since March 7.

Districts in Seattle and Portland, Ore., also dropped their mandates as Democratic governors in both states lifted indoor masking rules. And in Florida, where large school districts largely bucked Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ ban on mask mandates late last summer, leaders in the Miami-Dade and Broward County districts began easing their own restrictions in mid-February.

Meanwhile, at least one school in Chicago has begun requiring masks again due to a surge in cases.

St. Paul Public Schools spokesman Kevin Burns said district officials have long leaned on guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in crafting their COVID-19 protocols.

The district’s new policy would have required people to wear masks indoors if Ramsey County reaches the CDC’s highest mitigation tier. That is, if the county registers more than 200 infections per 100,000 residents over seven days and logs more than 20 hospitalizations or more than 15% of its hospital beds are occupied by COVID-positive patients.

The CDC currently lists Ramsey County as low-risk, mirroring the downward trend throughout much of the state and country over the last few weeks.

District officials would have reviewed Ramsey County transmission levels every Thursday, said Mary Langworthy, the district Director of Health and Wellness, and notified families whether their children must wear masks the following day.

Ward asked whether district officials considered requiring students to wear masks in classrooms where their peers may be immunocompromised or have a disability that puts them at high risk of contracting COVID-19. Langworthy said it would be difficult for administrators to track mask usage as students move in and out of classrooms.

“Unfortunately, there is risk,” Langworthy said. “I think it’s a reality that our families in that situation continue to face.”

Allen was concerned that data collection lags behind infections, and that the county would register a high case count while students went unmasked.

“The surge would be happening. It would be happening and we wouldn’t have masks,” she said.

But Superintendent Joe Gothard said the district would be able to pivot based on other factors. Teachers and principals might notice if there’s an uptick in absences, for example. Langworthy also said district families have been consistent in keeping their children home when they’re sick and reporting an illness to their teachers.

“It’s not as though we are going to be surprised if these numbers rise. We’re going to have indicators all over the place,” Gothard said.

Minnesota recorded 2,754 COVID-19 cases last week, a fraction of the 93,000 the state registered at the height of the omicron surge during the last full week of January.

Ramsey County reported 290 cases last week, compared with more than 1,400 in the last full week of January.

Gothard said he’s also spoken with his peers across the state about their own mask policies, noting many districts in Minnesota and around the country have recently rescinded their mandates.

“Each of them has talked about the ability for them to continue to be very health conscious and monitor things without having a mask requirement,” he said.

The state’s three largest school districts reinstated mask mandates at the end of last summer as case counts surged in the wake of the delta variant’s arrival. The Minneapolis and St. Paul districts maintained their mask requirements through the fall and winter, while Anoka-Hennepin began taking a school-by-school approach in late January.

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