Albert Lea school board mulls district-wide mask mandate

Published 5:20 pm Thursday, September 9, 2021

The Albert Lea school board heard a COVID-19 situation update at their meeting Tuesday in which Superintendent Mike Funk asked the board to think about implementing a district-wide mask mandate because of rising cases in the district and county.

“I can tell you (Tuesday) was probably the roughest day we’ve had in the district since the school year started,” Funk said. “We had 19 cases today. Our county numbers continue to be bouncing off the charts…

“The biggest concerning factor I have today is we had a significant number of staff out today. We had a 44% fill rate, meaning 44% of those positions were filled with substitute teachers. We were able to get other teachers to give up their preps. We still only had a 71% fill rate.”

Funk said he has had conversations with elementary staff who say, despite being fully vaccinated and masked themselves, are concerned about contracting COVID from their unmasked students.

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According to the COVID-19 information page on the district’s website, as of Thursday afternoon, there are 35 active cases within the district and a total of 99 confirmed cases since the beginning of the school year. Funk said it took the entire first semester for the district to reach just 85 cases last school year. 

“I think the biggest concerns I’ve got moving forward here is staffing,” Funk said. “We are not going to be able to maintain this sort of vacancy rate with our staff without burning everybody in the district out … I thought last year was rough. This is exponentially harder on our staff to start school this year.”

Funk proposed an idea of looking at the county case per 100,000 people, and setting a number at which the district would impose a mask mandate until the numbers go back below that threshold for a certain number of days. Funk said the threshold number and days needed to be under that number weren’t set in stone yet, but would be included in a recommendation in which the board would vote on at its Sept. 20 meeting.

Many of the school board members voiced their support of the idea to be voted on at the Sept. 20 meeting. 

“I would not be opposed to any kind of a mask mandate on our staff or on our students,” said board member Neal Skaar. “It is probably the second best mitigating practice. There are exceptions, certainly there are some people for whom masks would be a severe imposition, but that’s rare and we could deal with that.”

Board member Dennis Dieser said if it comes down to masking up or having to revert to distance learning, he would much rather see the students masked. 

“It’s basically a lesser of two evils,” Dieser said. “If the mask can protect and keep the kids in school, and there’s going to be extenuating circumstances where some kids can’t wear a mask, but if we can work with that or find clear masks so you can see expressions, I think there’s some ways to work with that, but our goal has got to be to keep these kids in school.”

Board member Kim Nelson made the point that while some people are against wearing a mask because it infringes on their rights, the school also has policies about wearing hats or a hood, length of shorts and T-shirts while in school, and a required mask could fall in that category. 

“I don’t believe that masks are the end-all answer to everything, but I believe that it is a preferable option than having to go to distance learning,” said board member Jill Marin. “We can watch the numbers climb or go down and what the staff members do, and if we’re here in two more weeks we can talk more about it.”

Marin asked what would happen between Tuesday night’s meeting and the next scheduled meeting if a significant amount of staff was out and the district wasn’t able to find sufficient substitutes. Funk said in the worst-case scenario that would result in shutting down a building for a day or two. 

“We’ve got to do something,” Funk said. “We have got to do something before it goes off the deep end.”

The board is expected to have a proposed resolution to look at and vote on at their next scheduled meeting Sept. 20. 

 

Anti-mask protests attempt to enter Albert Lea High School parking lot

A group of adults attempted to enter the Albert Lea High School parking lot near the end of the school day Thursday to protest the district’s masking policy, according to a press release. 

The release stated school administration was able to stop vehicles from entering the lot, but some of the protestors made their way across the street to a nearby business where they waved signs. They were asked by that business to leave the premises so the group moved down to another company down the street. 

“This had the potential to be a very dangerous situation for our students,” Funk said in a statement. “To see a group of grown adults come and attempt to disrupt our high school parking lot at the end of the school day is very disturbing. The high school is the busiest spot in Freeborn County for vehicle traffic when school is released. We are already having traffic challenges with the main intersection of Bridge and Hammer out. Whoever planned this protest was putting our students at significant risk. This behavior was completely unacceptable. Thank goodness we had the high school team led by Chris Dibble to keep our students safe.”

About Tyler Julson

Tyler Julson covers sports for the Albert Lea Tribune.

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