About 50 people gathered in the theater at Lincoln High School Monday, Aug. 30, to watch the Esko School Board decide if students should wear masks when they return next week.

The board voted unanimously to require masks for students in grades pre-K-6 inside the school building, with an exception allowing teachers to use face shields instead of masks when working with students on reading and pronunciation activities.

Esko Superintendent Aaron Fischer said the situation has changed since he initially recommended the board highly encourage masks but not require them during the last meeting Aug. 10.

“COVID changes quite quickly,” Fischer said. “I will tell you three weeks ago, I would have had a different recommendation than I do tonight.”

Carlton County’s two-week rolling COVID-19 case levels ticked up to over 21 cases per 10,000 residents, more than double the rate when the school implemented a hybrid model as kids returned to school in fall 2020.

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Fischer said Esko staff, eligible students and the community overall are highly vaccinated, but the school still needed to take some precautions for younger students who have not yet been able to get the vaccine.

“Nobody up here wants to see us go to distance learning, nobody wants to see us go to hybrid,” board chair Jeff Salo said. “The reason we came up with what we came up with was the fact that our upper level is highly vaccinated. Lower kids do not have that opportunity, and I think it’s our responsibility to try to make a safe environment as much as we can.”

Fischer and Salo both noted that the decision can be changed, and the board can call a special meeting to discuss the topic with three days' notice.

Six members of the community spoke up at the meeting, with three opposing masks and three advocating for their requirement.

Ryan Dewey said masks should be a choice for parents and students to make for themselves and shouldn’t be required by the school board.

“If you take enough of these choices away from me and my family, we’ll find a different school,” Dewey said. “Know that this is a sensitive issue, we’re exploring private schools at the moment because I don’t want my kids in masks. It’s torture, it’s child abuse. We have to do battle every single morning to get that thing on.”

Shawn Yardley, on the other hand, said her 4-year-old daughter has a myriad of health problems that make her vulnerable to COVID-19 and said she wished the board required masks for all students and staff.

“We model masks and she’s excited to put on the mask because we have made it a good thing,” Yardley said. “It is something that can get her safely into the community.”

Masks required in Carlton

Also on Monday, the Carlton School Board was divided, but voted to approve a preparedness plan for the district based on the two-week rolling average of COVID-19 case levels in Carlton County.

When case levels are above 20 per 10,000 residents, masks will be required in all Carlton buildings. If the case levels are about 15 per 10,000 residents, masks will be required only at South Terrace Elementary School.

Board members Julianne Emerson, Sue Karp and Tim Hagenah voted in favor of the plan and Eryn Symczak and Ann Gustafson voted against the measure. Board vice chair Sam Ojibway was absent.

With the case rates currently over 20 and expected to rise again next week, according to Superintendent John Engstrom, all Carlton students will be required to use a face covering for the “foreseeable future.”

Wrenshall won't require masks

In Wrenshall, the school board voted unanimously Tuesday, Aug. 31, to require masks only if an outbreak at the school affected 5% of students and staff, or about 20 people in the building.

Originally, the Wrenshall plan had a similar threshold for requiring masks as Carlton, but board vice chair Misty Bergman said the case rate was too low and didn’t reflect what was happening in Wrenshall.

“Children are not being affected by this,” Bergman said. “This masking is child abuse. They can’t see faces, they can’t hear. Every day they’re breathing in toxic (carbon dioxide) and it’s causing all kinds of other health issues ... it’s just not healthy, it’s not safe, and I want that number to be higher.”

Several community members spoke with people speaking in favor and against masks in school.

Ross Tollgaard, a fifth grade teacher and the Education Wrenshall vice president — the union that represents Wrenshall teachers — said more than 64% of teachers at the school were in favor of masks.

Patrick Riley, a physician’s assistant at Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Medical Center in Duluth, said he has worn a mask for 12-14 hours a day throughout the pandemic and has not had any adverse health effects. Riley has a child in the district and said he supported masks for students in the building.

Bergman, however, interrupted Riley and questioned his presence at the meeting.

“We have been spreading viruses for thousands of years and surviving,” Bergman said. “You’re saying some people die — the weak, the frail, the old — but the strong survive. If you’re a doctor, you should be helping your patients.”

Heather Brown, who spoke out against masks at a Cloquet School Board meeting Aug. 23, said she was trying to open enroll her children to Wrenshall because of the mask requirement approved in Cloquet.

"We don't need to live in fear," Brown said. "This COVID is not going away. There's no way we're going to survive this covering our faces for a year, five or 10 years. It's going to keep mutating, it's going to keep changing. Build your immune system, strengthen your body, move on ... Our parents need to be able to choose what is best for our kids."

The board spent about two hours going back and forth on whether to eliminate a threshold that would require students to wear masks. Bergman suggested the rate be 1,000 cases per 10,000 residents.

Board member Nicole Krisak suggested they set the benchmark so masks would be worn if an outbreak impacts 5% or more students and staff. The measure passed unanimously.