The Cloquet School Board is expected to weigh in Monday, Aug. 23, on whether the district should adopt a mandatory masking policy as students return to classes this fall. And judging from the discussion at Friday, Aug. 20, work session, board members are divided on the decision.

Superintendent Michael Cary said the board has authority to set its own policy, but he recommended the district return to in-person classes without requiring universal masking in school buildings. He suggested the use of masks be encouraged. However, he urged that the personal decision by any student or staff member whether to wear one should be supported.

"I think we can all universally agree that we want our kids to be healthy and safe. I don't think we're going to get any disagreement on that. But the reality is that the world is not a perfectly safe place," he said.

"I think what most people do is we all take what we consider reasonable precautions to make sure that we keep our loved ones and those around us safe and healthy. The issue is always then: What's your interpretation of 'reasonable?' And everybody seems to have personally a slightly different level of risk tolerance. Something that one person might consider doing and might engage in on a regular basis, another person might consider too risky," Cary said.

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Cary said he has been studying data to put the risk of a COVID-19 mortality in perspective to other potential causes of death. He cited Minnesota Department of Health stats that showed 2 pediatric COVID-19 deaths in people ages 5 to 19 out of more than 100,000 confirmed cases of the illness in the state.

Cary said stats for children ages 5 to 14 indicate students were 10 times more likely to die as a result of unintentional injuries, usually sustained in some sort of accident.

As for masks, Cary said, "My interpretation of what I've read so far is that the empirical studies would show that there is likely some protective factor from masks. But the level of protection is fuzzy, in terms of the data, from what I've seen."

School Board member Ken Scarbrough voiced frustration at receiving mixed messages from authorities.

"The people I'm talking to are saying: Who do we believe? You're getting different information about every day or every week," he said.

Regardless of the mask policy adopted on school grounds, Cary said the Cloquet district would continue to require masks to be worn on school buses, as federally mandated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"I'm not in favor of requiring kids to wear masks in school," Scarbrough said.

"I'm kind of on the other end of the spectrum," said school board member Dave Battaglia. "I hate masks as much as anybody. But I would vote to wear a mask right from the get-go ... I think our goal is to keep kids safe and to keep them from going back to distance learning. I think we can all agree to that."

Battaglia predicted that if COVID-19 case counts and deaths continue to rise with the spread of the highly transmissible delta variant of the virus, universal mask use will certainly return. He asked, "Why be reactive? Why not be proactive and start with masks?"

Board member Nate Sandman asked what percentage of school staff has been vaccinated.

"We don't keep that health data," Cary responded. "That's personal health information."

Sandman noted that recent data for Carlton County indicates that 68.2% of residents age 12 and older have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccination. But children under the age of 12 have not been granted access to vaccines yet, leaving them potentially more vulnerable.

"There's a heightened awareness of this," said Board Chair Ted Lammi of the district's mask policy. "On this subject, I'm getting a lot of mail, and I almost never get mail, except if it's a hockey issue. So, people are watching us, and I think next meeting will be an appropriate time to make a decision."

Lammi said he's currently "on the fence" about whether to require masks in the schools.

Board member Gary Huard asked Lammi if the letters he received skewed one direction or another.

"Initially, there was a bunch that were against masking. And now I'm getting a wave of pro-masking letters," he said.

Cary said districts around the region are taking different approaches.

"I'm seeing a mix of either typically masking under 12 required and parent choice for 12 and above or parent choice. I'm not seeing anybody saying: No masks. We don't think you should do it. It's either parent choice for all grade levels or that break between the under 12."