A discussion about wearing masks in schools became contentious among parents and community members at a Sept. 13 Shakopee School Board meeting.
The two-hour meeting was held at Shakopee High School’s Thrust Stage and livestreamed on YouTube. Superintendent Dr. Mike Redmond presented a pandemic response update, with recommended additions to a health and safety resolution approved at an Aug. 23 board meeting. The board sent back the proposal for further review, and will revisit it later this month.
Much of the meeting conversation focused on current pandemic response rules and their effectiveness since the start of the Shakopee public school year.
During a public comment segment, Shakopee residents voiced endorsements and criticisms of the district’s pandemic response. Discussion focused on mask advocacy, rescinding mask requirements and addressing discrepancies between masking policies at the elementary schools versus the middle schools and high school.
Shakopee resident Cassie Hartman said she believes the choice to wear masks should be left in the hands of parents, not the board.
“We do not believe that you have the wellbeing of our children in mind. It’s time for you to allow us parents to make the decision about what’s best for our children,” Hartman said.
Those advocating for masks emphasized the importance of in-person learning and interaction. Shakopee resident Sarah Kosse said requiring masks would best provide these opportunities for kids.
“Everyone in this room can agree that the most important goal out of all of this is to keep children in class learning and interacting with their peers,” Kosse said when addressing the board. “What’s the one thing we can do to ensure this happens? By having children wear their masks.”
A tweet from State Rep. Erik Mortensen (R-Shakopee) regarding school board meetings hours before Shakopee’s caused a stir: “When attending your school board meetings, remember, you are NOT begging, you are NOT pleading, you are NOT even asking. You are NOTIFYING and WARNING what your schools can expect from you starting right now.”
Mortensen was not in attendance at Monday night’s meeting. The Shakopee Valley News was unable to reach Mortensen for comment.
Cheers and applause were regularly heard throughout the night from both sides. But vocal support turned to heckling and frustrated outbursts later in the meeting as discussion moved on to the pandemic response’s new recommendations.
Data was presented from the Minnesota Department of Health’s daily updates on confirmed cases and compiled through calculating a 14-day rolling average per 10,000 residents of COVID-19 cases in Scott County.
29.1 is the rolling average as of the Sept. 13 presentation, a number Redmond said increased after summer, but shows a plateau compared to recent day averages.
The current resolution currently employs health and safety policies in Shakopee public schools, such as emphasizing handwashing and hygiene, increasing air flow in buildings and thoroughly disinfecting “high-touch surfaces.”
Students in grades 7-12 are also recommended to wear masks in school buildings and at crowded outdoor events, with unvaccinated students upped to a strong recommendation.
But as of Aug. 23, a rolling average metric that would change the policy from mask recommendations to a requirement had not yet been presented. Redmond’s recommendation Monday night included a metric, proposing a mask requirement in school buildings and outdoor events if the 14-day rolling average reached 40 or higher. The requirement would revert back to the original masking policy when the rolling average falls below 30 for five consecutive days.
Another metric was introduced based on school building statistics, stating a site could also implement a mask requirement if 5% of its student population is infected with COVID. The requirement would drop down to recommendations when the percentage of positive cases falls below 3% for five consecutive days.
Redmond said this recommendation was not a simple question of “mask or no mask,” but was decided through considering people’s safety and providing quality education during the pandemic.
“We’ve been working hard to maintain an appropriate balance between the health and safety of our students, our staff and community and at the same time, providing the best learning opportunities possible for our students,” Redmond said.
Some audience attendees interrupted Redmond’s presentation at times, saying the math used for determining the rolling averages was incorrect. A couple members of the school board also questioned the rolling average metric of 40, suggesting the number be increased before implementing mask requirements in schools.
School board treasurer Joe Aldrich said the current recommended number seemed too low for him to agree to the resolution additions.
“I think there has to be some level of cases per 10,000 that unfortunately would make a requirement needed ... at some point, I do think we need to do something,” Aldrich said. “But, 40 is definitely too low.”
School board members were occasionally heckled when announcing their thoughts on the updated resolution. Outbursts of “We the People!,” “Show the data!” and “Let us vote!” were heard during this section.
Despite this, School Board Member Jeff Smith along with other members commended Shakopee residents for attending the meeting and voicing their beliefs.
“I’m grateful for everybody coming out and cheering your opinions and thoughts ... this is democracy in action right here, and this is great to see,” Smith said.
The school board sent the proposal back to the Pandemic Response Advisory Team committee to reconsider metrics. The board will review the updated pandemic response information and metrics in the next meeting at 6 p.m. Monday, Sept. 27.