Community members filled the Faribault District Office’s meeting room to capacity Monday night as the School Board prepared to approve health and safety protocols to start the 2021-22 school year.
During the community comment period at the beginning of the meeting, parents and other concerned citizens shared their opinions with the board on whether or not masking should be required on school grounds for students and staff.
Ultimately, the board approved the guidelines as established last week by the Incident Command Team, which has led the district’s response to the coronavirus pandemic for over one year. Under this proposal, the district strongly recommends students and staff wear masks indoors regardless of vaccination status. Masks will continue to be required for students while riding the bus. The protocols are subject to change depending on the community spread of the coronavirus.
The proposal was approved 5-2 with board members Courtney Cavellier and Carolyn Treadway voting no.
“Hands down, this is the toughest decision I’ve had to make as a board member,” said Board member John Bellingham. “I have grandchildren in the elementary and middle school. I have former colleagues, as a teacher, working at the schools. We have leadership working directly with the kids, and all of these are at risk … We’ve taken in a lot of information from the public, from the ICC team, and I know just about everyone on the board has done an awful lot of reading of materials that’s been sent to them, and you do it on your own.”
Out of 13 speakers at the meeting, two parents were in favor of the board voting to require masks, stating Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations that both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals should continue masking indoors in high transmission areas.
The majority of those who spoke at the meeting expressed their disagreements with masking requirements. They urged the board to allow parents to decide for themselves what is in the best interest of their children when it comes to health and safety.
During the meeting, board members asked any final questions of staff to clarify how the protocols would function in the school environment, if approved.
Prior to making the vote, Board member Casie Steeves asked Director of Special Services Rob Dehnert if any students contracted COVID-19 during the Summer STEAM program, which did not require masks.
Dehnert reported one student, to his knowledge, tested positive for COVID-19 during the duration of Summer STEAM.
“I celebrate that we only have a minimal number of students with COVID this summer and yet the delta variant has risen during these past few weeks and is much more virulent than the previous variants,” said Board member Treadway. “So I am quite concerned by this recommendation.”
Before the final vote, Treadway amended the motion to state that elementary school students in grades K through 5, and staff, would be required to wear masks until vaccinations became available to children under 12. The motion failed 4-3 with Treadway, Cavellier and Board member Jerry Robicheau voting yes.
Board member Richard Olson attempted to amend the recommendation in a couple of ways before the board approved the original proposal. One amendment he proposed was to require all visitors to wear masks, show their vaccination cards and wear rubber gloves if applicable. This motion failed, as did an amendment to the motion to require visitors to wear masks as the only requirement.
The School Board also endorsed the Incident Command Team as the district's lead decision-maker in responding to the pandemic. The Incident Command Team is composed of around 35 school building leaders, staff, teachers, board members and public health professionals. The decision was approved 5-2 with Treadway and Board member Richard Olson voting no.
Treadway, who has served on the Incident Command Team, said where clear guidelines were given by the governor, the Minnesota Department of Health and the Minnesota Department of Education last year, that isn’t the case anymore. Therefore, she said she was not in favor of giving the Incident Command Team the final say this year.
Olson felt the board should not hand over its authority to a committee in making decisions.
Board members who backed the Incident Command Team said that the team made decisions more seamless over the past year. Otherwise, Board Chair Chad Wolff said the board would have needed to call countless special meetings in order to approve new protocols. He also pointed out that members of the Incident Command Team are actually present in the school buildings during the day, where board members are not.