School board votes in new health and safety measures; votes down COVID masking review motion

Published 11:03 pm Monday, August 16, 2021

The Albert Lea school board on Monday took action on a number of items, including approving health and safety measures for the 2021-22 school year, as well as voting down a motion that would have allowed the board to review and make changes to the district’s masking policy. 

According to Superintendent Mike Funk, this year’s health and safety measures look similar to the measures passed before last year with the main differences being that this year’s measures have less to do with learning models and more to do with having the ability to adjust as situations present themselves. 

The new measures included four sections: 

  1. All students, staff and visitors, regardless of vaccination status, are recommended to follow the strategies of physical distancing, handwashing and respiratory etiquette, cleaning and disinfection, contact tracing, screening testing and staying home when sick.
  2. All students, staff and visitors within the district who are not vaccinated are recommended to wear a mask. 
  3. After consultation with the school board chair and notification of the board, the superintendent is authorized to select and implement different health and safety measures for the school district or any specific school buildings without school board action if the superintendent reasonably believes that prompt implementation of different health and safety measures as necessary.
  4. The superintendent will provide regular updates to the school board regarding the school

district’s efforts to implement COVID-19 related educational and public health guidance issued by the Minnesota Department of Education and theMinnesota Department of Health, respectively. The health and safety measures selected and implemented by the superintendent shall continue in effect unless and until the school board, in consultation with the superintendent and appropriate school district staff and public health officials, deems it in the best interest of the school district and its students to implement different health and safety measures.

Board member Jill Marin expressed concern with section three of the measures, saying she would like the school board to become more involved in decision making. 

“We have policy 201 which states that none of the board members apart from the board body have authority,” Marin said. “I would prefer that reading would say, rather than just notification to the school board, that the school board would be involved with consultation and approval.”

Funk said it would be difficult operationally to navigate that with the way that the district is planning to manage the COVID situation this year. 

According to Funk, after having numerous mandates required both federally and at the state level last year, the plan for this year is to have a more localized approach. 

The district currently operates out of eight different buildings. Funk said each building and each classroom could operate differently based on the given situation. He gave an example of the difficulties he said it might present. 

“How would we work that in an operational environment where we have an outbreak in a building and I have to quarantine a classroom and maybe put a mask on fourth graders,” Funk said. “Do we have a board meeting to decide that?”

Funk added that section four of this resolution included that if the board was dissatisfied with any policy made regarding the health and safety measures, those issues could be made into an action item at the following board meeting to be discussed and voted on. 

The health and safety measures for the 2021-22 school year passed 5-2 with Marin and Angie Hoffman being the dissenting votes. 

The board also heard a motion from Hoffman that was tabled from the board’s July 19 meeting relating to the district’s COVID-19 masking policy. Hoffman’s motion stated that “administration was authorized to make changes to the district’s masking policies as

needed and without prior approval, so that fluctuations in circumstances may be responded to

quickly. However, if changes are made to the masking policy, the board will then need to vote

to authorize the changes at the next scheduled meeting or study session in order for the

changes to continue being implemented. This motion is specific to our district’s masking policy

and does not apply to other COVID policies.”

“People want to have a say and they want to have a voice,” Hoffman said. “This is limited to just the masking issue because that seems to be the biggest thing people care about. Personally, I do think that this is bigger than an operational issue. For some people it is going to determine if their kids are going to come here and depending on how we would do a masking situation, it could really impact the culture of the school district.”

Marin said the feedback she has been getting from community members is that they want to have more representation. Marin said she saw no harm in the motion and that it would provide more of that voice to the elected representatives.

Board member Kim Nelson said she has also heard from both sides of the debate from voices in the community. Nelson said the resounding message she hears is that if the board makes these types of decisions it could lead to a slippery slope of decisions to follow. 

Board member Neal Skaar said that while he feels the motion is redundant, he doesn’t see a slippery slope forming. Skaar also said the board hired management to make these types of decisions and he couldn’t see himself voting against the decisions made by people the board put in place to make them.

Board member Dennis Dieser said before the vote that he planned to abstain because he thought the decision could lead down a deep rabbit hole.

The motion failed 3-3-1. Hoffman, Marin and Skaar voted in favor; board chair Dave Klatt, board member Bruce Olson and Nelson voted against, and Dieser abstained. 

In other action, the board:

  • Heard an update about the start of school and curriculum changes from executive director of teaching and learning, Mary Jo Dorman.
  • Voted 7-0 to approve changes to the elementary, middle and high school’s and activities handboooks. 
  • Voted 7-0 to raise activity ticket rates by $1. 

 

 

About Tyler Julson

Tyler Julson covers sports for the Albert Lea Tribune.

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