Laura Henderson Hjermstad asked the Park Rapids School Board on Monday, Aug. 9 to take a clear stand on whether students will be required to wear masks in school under a future mask mandate.

Speaking on behalf of a group of parents, Henderson said, “Last year, we were blindsided by the mask mandate required in schools in Minnesota. Even though the CDC indicates the survival rate for SARS-CoV-2 for ages 1 through 19, without any treatment at all, is 99.997 percent, our children were required to wear masks in school.”

Acknowledging that the mask mandate was an emergency order, Henderson called the requirement to wear masks in school “unwarranted and damaging to our children’s wellbeing and educational progress.”

She asked the school board to “take a stand” in preparation for “the next, inevitable mask mandate” by putting policy in place allowing staff and students to go without masks, if they so choose.

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“Our children have a right to a free public education, face to face with no mask,” Henderson said. “The distance learning option is substandard and ineffective and not a suitable substitute.”

She challenged the school board to draft a policy before the school year begins, protecting what she called “our freedom to breathe freely.” She also suggested that, without such a policy, parents may need to prepare to homeschool their children.

“There is no question a mask mandate will be given again,” said Henderson. “The real question is, are you willing to take a stand for the rights of our children?”

Superintendent Lance Bagstad responded that school districts in northwestern Minnesota have been taking feedback about masking and COVID-19 mitigation strategies from parents, constituents and medical officials, and they proposed a series of recommendations.

“I do want everybody to know that when we look at educating kids, we want to make sure that they are in a safe, healthy environment, that they are also at the least restrictive environment for them to learn and grow,” he said. “The CDC has provided resources and information to help our families understand the recommendations and (reduce) the spread of COVID.

“For the 2021-22 school opening, the determination of implementing recommendations for opening has been given to our local school board.”

That said, Bagstad read a statement recommending the following:

  • Not requiring face masks in the school; to support students, families and staff in their choice to wear a mask. However, masks will be required on buses, as per the federal order currently in place.

  • Not excluding students from in-person learning when physical distancing is not possible; using the multi-layered safety protocol of proper handwashing, covering your cough and staying home when you’re symptomatic; continuing to clean and disinfect the school to further reduce the risk of COVID.

  • Continuing to report confirmed cases of COVID to the Minnesota Department of Education.

  • Supporting families in their choice to participate in the vaccination program.

  • Following the Minnesota Department of Health’s decision tree and encouraging everyone to do their part to reduce the spread of COVID.

  • Not planning to implement procedures not mandated by the federal or state government.

School board member Dennis Dodge moved to accept Bagstad’s recommendations.

Dodge said students and parents should have the freedom to decide whether to wear masks. “I also feel that nobody, whether they wear a mask or don’t wear a mask, get vaccinated or (don’t) get vaccinated, should be harassed or bullied,” he said.

“This is a choice,” said board chair Sherry Safratowich, referring to whether or not to wear a mask. “I respect you either way, and it will be respected in our schools.”

Safratowich added, “I don’t think anybody needs to know whether I’ve been vaccinated or I haven’t been vaccinated.”

She said the school district will start the school year without requiring masks and will hope to continue that way.

Dodge’s motion passed unanimously.

Asked whether parents will be notified if there is a federal or state mask mandate, Bagstad said the district will send out updates about any policy changes so that families can decide what is best for their children.

Asked whether the schools will allow parents to decide on mask-wearing if there is a federal or state mandate, Bagstad repeated his recommendation not to plan on implementing procedures that haven’t been mandated.

“I think we really need to look at what is mandated before we make decisions,” he said. “Right now, we’re focusing on local control. Tonight is what local control is all about, when you put it in the hands of the elected officials.”

Calling it a civics lesson, Bagstad added that if citizens want to make their voices heard, they need to bring their concerns or ideas to elected officials.