Cloquet students and teachers who return to school Sept. 8 will be required to wear a mask in all district buildings following a vote by the school board on Monday, Aug. 23.

The board voted 4-2 in favor of mandating masks for all indoor activities when school resumes, with board members Ken Scarbrough and Gary “Hawk” Huard voting against the measure.

Superintendent Michael Cary initially recommended the board “strongly encourage” masks for students after a meeting last week, but reconsidered after a conversation with a pediatrician in the region.

“The one thing he offered that I thought was meaningful, he said as a pediatrician he had seen far fewer cases or had kids coming in with any type of viral illness last year during the school year, when masks were required,” Cary said. “Then he started to see those cases increase after the school year when kids were out of school and we were starting to relax a lot of the restrictions around COVID and the virus.”

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The pediatrician told Cary he hadn’t seen any severe cases of COVID-19 in children, but felt the Northland was fortunate compared to other regions of the country. He also said anecdotally that some pediatric intensive care units where there have been outbreaks of the delta variant have begun to fill with children, forcing them to send kids to other hospitals.

Unlike the school board’s meeting two weeks ago, when about a dozen parents voiced their opposition to masks, just one parent — Heather Brown — spoke against the action. She questioned the wisdom of blindly following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations for preventing the spread of COVID-19.

“I’m just curious if you guys really feel that is an OK option for children to be wearing masks all day, just because that’s what they tell you to do,” Brown said.

The only other member of the public to speak was Katie Zack, who said requiring kids to wear masks is a “no-brainer.” She said the delta variant is twice as contagious as the original COVID-19 virus and said students and staff could spread the disease throughout the community without masks.

“I don’t want to get sick. I don’t want my kids to get sick. I don’t want you to get sick,” Zack said. “There’s a lot of things people don’t want to do that they have to do because it’s best for other people.”

Scarbrough proposed requiring masks for students in grades K-6, but board member Dave Battaglia questioned having a school where some students are required to have a mask and others are not. Cloquet Middle School has students in grades 5-8.

Battaglia also said if the situation changes, the order can quickly be ended.

“We meet every two weeks,” Battaglia said. “If we were in a masking situation, we can decide every two weeks whether to lift the mask order or not.”

Board Chair Ted Lammi said while he believes it will increase students’ safety, the mask mandate is also about preventing the district from going to an extended time of distance learning for the third consecutive year.

“What we really want to prevent is that distance learning,” Lammi said. “I very much hope and trust that we are not going to distance learning because that won’t be good. That’s one of the factors for us to consider. It isn’t just about safety — it’s about our mission.”