With school just a few weeks away from starting again and cases rising due to the COVID-19 delta variant, Cloquet parents and students are concerned about the possibility of masks being required once again in schools.

Twelve parents and one student spoke to the board to support masks being optional when school begins early next month.

Incoming fifth grader Anya VanderMeiden addressed the Cloquet School Board during its meeting Monday, Aug. 9, to request that masks be made optional for students this fall.

“I was homeschooled last year due to COVID-19,” Anya said. “I am really excited to start fifth grade at Cloquet Middle School and to see all of my friends and make new friends. I am worried that if I have to wear a mask, nobody will know who I am. It will be hard to make new friends.”

Anya was followed by her mother, Sarah VanderMeiden, who said children shouldn’t be required to wear masks because they are less impacted by COVID-19, and masks have a negative effect on students’ mental health.

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“Children are at a very low risk of complications from COVID-19,” VanderMeiden said. “Since the beginning of the pandemic, only 288 out of 606,390 deaths were in the 5- to 18-year-old age group, that’s a risk factor of 0.047%. Meanwhile it has been well documented that children and teens are experiencing new or worsening mental health conditions.”

Hilary Hedin, the mother of a sophomore at Cloquet High School, told the board COVID-19 prevention measures like social distancing and mask mandates haven’t stopped the spread of the disease. Instead, they have created a “pandemic of obesity, mental illness and weakened immune systems.”

“Many will say that mask mandates will allow our schools to remain in person and avoid distance learning,” Hedin said. “This is not true. Masks will not stop the spread of this disease in our children. Let us focus on the true science of the human body and provide our children with health and strength through proper nutrition, exercise, social interaction and faith that every day is meant to be lived to the fullest with joy and happiness from community and loving one another.”

Cloquet Superintendent Michael Cary said the district has followed the requirements of Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz and the Minnesota Department of Health throughout the pandemic regarding masks. During summer school, MDH has recommended students wear masks, but has not required them, according to Cary.

“At present, that’s what we’re operating under,” Cary said. “That said, I think we’re going to have to have a conversation with the board about what we want to do going forward, but that’s the history of where things have been up to this point. We have not extended any mandates or requirements that go beyond what we were legally obligated to do.”

Kate Jaakola, a parent of small children that will soon be attending school in Cloquet, put the question of masks in terms of government overreach and patriotism.

“I want to remind you that this is America, and our system of government is a representative democracy,” Jaakola said. “This isn’t a monarchy or a dictatorship. Unfortunately, with last year’s mask mandate and maybe one this year, you are dictating to parents how their children may breathe clean air. You are overstepping your boundaries and mandating things that are not only outside your jurisdiction, but proven not to work.”

The Cloquet School Board will have a special committee of the whole meeting at 8 a.m. Friday, Aug. 20, at Garfield School to discuss the district’s COVID-19 policies when students return, as well as other issues. The meeting is open to the public, but there will not be an opportunity for public comment.

This story was updated at 10:23 a.m. Aug. 23 to correct the risk factor for COVID-19-related deaths in the 5-18 age group, as quoted by Sara VanderMeiden. The story was originally posted at 1 p.m. Aug. 11. The Pine Journal regrets the error.