Eastern Carver County Schools recently announced that it strongly recommends, but will not require, that all students, teachers, staff and visitors wear masks indoors when school begins in September.
But for many residents attending an Aug. 16 standing-room only board meeting at the District Education Center, that is not enough.
Many asked the district to remove any thought of a mask mandate, no matter the case rate per 10,000 residents in Carver County, this school year or ever.
The current rate of 16.1 remains in the low category. If the number would be greater than 30, masks would be required for students 12 and under. If the case rate grows higher than 50, masks would be required for all students and staff in the building.
Superintendent Lisa Sayles-Adams said district leadership will “do what we can to keep our students and staff in school for the weeks ahead.”
District staff has met regularly, as late as Aug. 13, with Carver County health officials to help develop a safe learning plan for the 2021-22 school year.
“Health and safety of our students, and delivering a quality education are our core values. These are the values that guide our decision-making process,” said Celi Haga, director of communications and community relations.
The district said it looks at positivity rates and trends in the state and county, as well as vaccination rates among state and county residents.
Carver remains one of the most vaccinated counties in the metro area, with a narrower look of the four communities that make up the majority of ECCS having an even higher percentage vaccination rate than the county as a whole.
Haga said the county has reported around 50 new vaccinations per day, with that number doubled in recent weeks. Despite Delta variant cases on the rise, there has not been a rapid increase in the 0-17 age group in Carver County.
The district data dashboard will also return to the ECCS website when school starts in September, giving a transparent look at active cases.
Board Director Tim Klein applauded district leadership for its attention to detail and multiple statistics.
“I haven’t seen any other school districts be this precise,” he said.
Sayles-Adams said ECCS “learned a lot last year. What is different from last year is we had the executive order from the governor. ... We have a scale to look at to make these meaningful decisions.”
Many District 112 parents and residents spoke passionately about an anti-mask mandate. While some applauded the decision to leave a freedom of choice of wearing a mask in place to start the school year, others felt like it was not enough.
Chaska resident Patricia Williamson feels like she is hearing a repeat of what was said last summer. Her seventh grader’s response to a district letter stating masks would not be mandatory was one she questioned.
“She said how long will it take for them to shift their mind and make us wear them. I don’t want to go back if I have to (wear one),” Williamson said about her daughter. “Fool me once, that’s one thing. Fool me twice and I feel like I’m getting the same messages I was getting at the start of last year.”
The board received more than 100 emails on the mask topic, opinions differing in response. Of the 11 public speakers at the board meeting, 10 spoke against any kind of mask wearing by students in school.
Some, including Dr. Christa Waymire, a family physician with four children in the district, used numbers and studies to make her case. She stated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of July 21, 2021, there have been 335 children who have died in the United States with a diagnosis of COVID on their death certificate. The certificates did not state whether the child died from, or with, COVID, she said.
Waymire said Johns Hopkins studied those 335 cases and found that in all of them, the children had serious comorbidity such as leukemia.
“There have been zero COVID deaths among healthy children,” Waymire said.
Kayla Merkling, who will have a kindergartener this school year, said she wonders what the impact is of having masks on teachers and students in a classroom setting.
“I wonder how this translates into a classroom setting where teachers are trying to project to 26 sets of little ears. Or worse, small voices trying to be understood by both their teachers and peers alike. I wonder how newly enrolled students will learn to read without the ability to copy or see phonetic sounds. After talking to many teacher friends, they agree on the disadvantage masks put on early readers,” Merkling said.
Merkling, like others, also addressed the mental and emotional impacts the last 18 months has created. She said she had hopes of hearing accounts from other parents that “it wasn’t too bad,” but found what she expected. She heard accounts of anxiety and fear within public places and even with guests in the home, as well as a child that washed his hands and arms so aggressively he began to develop sores.
Board Director Jenny Stone, a teacher in another district, said it is important for the public to access and understand local data to regain their trust.
“I’m not looking at any other data from any other school district. I really want to keep our kids in school. I want to be selfish. I want to keep our kids in school five days a week. I want to look at our data and I want to know day-by-day and minute-by-minute,” Stone said.