Situation at board meeting prompts discussion on how to enforce mandate

Published 9:17 pm Friday, November 19, 2021

The Albert Lea school board took a closer look Monday at the enforcement of the district’s mask mandate after a man was trespassed before the start of the meeting for refusing to wear a mask and questioning the board’s authority for the mandate from the audience.

Chairman Dave Klatt prior to the start of the meeting reminded all of the people in attendance of the district’s mask mandate, and then asked all in the audience without face masks on to either put on a mask or shield. The district had masks and shields available for people who needed them.

One man in the audience asked several times what statute gave the board authority over members of the public to require masks, after which Klatt said there would not be discussion on the matter and that the man should wear a mask or leave the meeting.

“Are you denying the public their right to peaceably assemble and petition their government for redress of grievances?” the man asked.

After Klatt asked several times for all in attendance to wear masks or leave the meeting, Albert Lea High School Principal Chris Dibble, who was filling in for Superintendent Mike Funk, trespassed the man with the assistance of School Resource Officer Adam Conn.

As this was taking place, some people could be seen leaving the board room.

Once the meeting officially began, school board member Angie Hoffman asked if discussion could be added at the end of the meeting about the mask mandate and if what had happened earlier in the evening was how the board wanted to enforce the mandate in the future.

School board member Neal Skaar said he saw the discussion as two separate issues: first, how the board should conduct its meetings and then separately, the issue of the mask mandate.

He said the public is 100% guaranteed to be able to witness public meetings, but that doesn’t mean the public can address the board however they choose. There is a protocol for speaking at the forum that is clearly outlined, and for people to make comments from their seats is out of order.

“It’s entirely inappropriate, and we shouldn’t tolerate it,” Skaar said.

The question, however, is how to deal with it. He compared the situation to conducting a class with unruly students.

Hoffman asked what the current plan is for board meetings.

Klatt said it is to make sure everyone in attendance is aware of the mandate and to follow the mandate.

“It’s not a popular thing with me wearing a mask or anything else either, but I know when I walk into buildings I have to,” Klatt said.

He said the meeting should not be started until that is accomplished to make sure no one is overseen.

Board member Jill Marin said as a board, the members need to model being responsible, civil adults.

She questioned inconsistency with the issue in the district, referencing an earlier board meeting where two people were unmasked as well as situations in the classroom and at athletic events.

“All of these inconsistencies are what bother me, and I believe put the district at liability,” Marin said, noting that inconsistencies also give the impression that the masks really are not for student safety.

Board member Kim Nelson said her biggest concern was that the board show students how to appropriately and respectfully address each other. She also pointed out that anyone at the previous board meeting in question could have called out the people who weren’t in masks.

“I absolutely don’t like the inconsistencies,” Nelson said. ‘But how do you fix that? You follow your mandate. You model for students.”

Board member Dennis Dieser said he thought the public input was important — that’s why the board changed the length of the open forum — but the public needs to give their input in a respectful way.

“None of us are perfect,” Dieser said. “We all make mistakes and we need to do what’s in the best interest of the children and we’re pulling ourselves away from that right now. We really need to get back on track. That’s all of us.”

Marin questioned whether there would be law enforcement intervention at other school events as well for offenders of the mask mandate.

Dibble said at the high school, there is a small amount of people refusing to wear masks, and they are asked to go home. At athletic events, announcers make announcements throughout the events about masks.

Marin said for her, the difference is that the enforcement is not the same in all instances.

Several board members agreed that it was not the students, but adults who are causing more of the issues.

Hoffman said situations like what happened before the meeting hurts the board’s relationship with the public.

In other action, the board:

• Heard an update from Sumit Bhagra, site physician lead for Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea and Austin, about the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bhagra said as of this week, southeast Minnesota Mayo sites, including Albert Lea, Austin, Owatonna and Red Wing has had an 18.5% positivity rate for COVID-19 tests. Freeborn County’s was about 10.1%.

He also answered questions about vaccinations and other issues.

• Heard an update about COVID-19 in the district.

Kathy Niebuhr, executive director of administrative services, said the district will have rapid tests available from the Department of Health after Thanksgiving to send home with students if they are exposed at school.

She also briefly mentioned the expected vaccine mandate expected for staff through OSHA. The action is presently on pause as it is appealed in the courts.

• Approved a memorandum of understanding with the Albert Lea Education Association regarding the union’s disability leave reserve. The reserve allows teachers to donate a set amount of days that can be in essence given to another teacher in the event of a serious illness. The memorandum adds COVID-related illness for vaccinated employees. The employee would have to have exhausted all of their other leave options.

Niehbuhr said the language was added by the union.

• Recognized Edward Chapman as August Employee of the Month.

• Heard a presentation from Albert Lea City Planner Megan Boeck about tax abatement being considered for a developer who is converting the former VFW building into market rate apartments.

• Approved revisions to the district’s wellness and student medication policy.