ELY – ISD 696 Superintendent Erik Erie came under attack, sometimes personally, by scores of district residents this week who remain upset with the school administration’s 11th–hour …
ELY – ISD 696 Superintendent Erik Erie came under attack, sometimes personally, by scores of district residents this week who remain upset with the school administration’s 11th–hour decision to mandate the wearing of protective face masks indoors on campus for the beginning of the new school year.
The Ely school board met in the Memorial High School gymnasium for their regular monthly meeting Monday night to accommodate the mostly partisan crowd, estimated to be in the hundreds.
Nearly a dozen district residents, including parents, students and a couple of local health professionals, addressed the school board in the open forum portion of the meeting. Most of the speakers were clearly opposed to the district’s last-minute implementation of the requirement, and their impassioned rhetoric drew loud cheers and standing ovation disruptions from the audience who filled the floor-level bleachers on one side of the gym. The Ely Police Chief stood by and monitored the situation.
A petition calling for the reversal of the ISD 696 Safe Learning Plan and the face mask requirement, signed by upwards of 300 residents, gained support throughout the Ely community in the past ten days. The petition was included in the school board agenda packet. Many of the petition signers vocally reinforced their displeasure with the school board at the meeting.
As a new variant of COVID-19 surges across the country, state and local communities, the ISD 696 administration, with the full support of the local school board, took the advice of state and local health professionals, and in a move to provide a safe learning environment for Ely students, changed the school year re-opening plan from a mask-wearing recommendation to a mask-wearing requirement.
Frank Udovich, who signed the petition, referred to the school’s “illogical fears” about COVID.
“COVID is never going away and we can never vaccinate or mask our way out of the problem,” he said.
In his online petition comments, Udovich summed up the opinion of 90 percent of the school board meeting audience: “This is absolute nonsense. You’ve not only basically PRESSURED our young children into getting the vaccine, now you are FORCING them to wear masks. Unbelievable!!! I don’t even want to hear the excuses that ‘you’re making it a safe environment’ for all. That is ridiculous! Masks are NOT going to stop COVID so please don’t give me the ‘science’ BS on masks.”
Another speaker engaged in a personal attack directed at Superintendent Erie and was immediately gaveled out of order by school board chair Ray Marsnik.
Ely student Micah Larson, a senior and president of the school’s student council, well-known to the school board for his English department book-banning support, and a recent attempt to tie a local 9/11 tribute event with the ultra-conservative Young America Foundation, confirmed that he was the author of the petition calling for the reversal of the face mask mandate.
The young Larson boy followed his father, Matthew, in addressing the school board in support of his own petition. He questioned the presence of leadership in the Ely school district.
“I hope every one of you realizes you have lost the trust of a majority of the parents, taxpayers, and I hate to say it, but many of the teachers in this school as well,” he said.
Larson added, “There are multiple teachers that I have heard of who won’t speak their mind about this issue fearing for their job or other reasons. Obviously, the leadership in this district has simply gone down the drain.”
He threatened to leave the high school if his petition request was not honored.
“I will lose out on scholarships, possibly even college opportunities. And you will lose a high-achieving student and current valedictorian of the Class of 2022,” he told the school board.
The school board made no move to rescind the face mask mandate.
Dr. Joe Bianco, a physician with the Essentia Ely health clinic, stressed that the mitigation of COVID-19 does not solely rest on face masks. That practice, he said, is just one component of several steps including hand and surface sanitizing, social-distancing and vaccinating.
“It is the school’s policy makers that make the policies, to look at what’s on the ground, to look at what’s in the field, to figure out what is the best strategy. That’s hard work,” he said. Bianco apologized to the Ely school board.
“Essentia Health was late to the table getting information that we felt was important for our patients to you guys. I’ll take the heat on that one. There is still a lot of data to get. To err on the side of caution is the best practice for everyone.”
School parent Mark Sponholz asked the board a series of rhetorical questions concerning their knowledge of structural engineering in developing and approving a $20 million building renovation project.
“When they started that building project, the school board decided to talk to experts,” he said. “Why would we consider any different approach when it comes to deciding what is the right thing to do for the health safety of our school, our children and our community?”
He continued, “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Minnesota Department of Health, a number of local physicians are all aligned. We should be wearing masks. I’m here tonight to support the decision to mandate masks because it is in alignment with a number of experts and those who have the expertise to give us guidance in this. I implore to continue to follow the guidance. Listen to the structural engineers and make sure our buildings don’t fall down. And listen to the people who are telling us what to do to keep our children safe as well.”
Few in the crowded gym expressed support for his comments.
A selection of comments in the 290 signatures on the petition presented to the school board included:
• Matthew Kosinski, “Once again the Ely School District has overstepped their bounds by mandating masks. Didn’t you get enough of this last year? I want nothing more than to remove my kids from this school district but my wife won’t move out of Ely.”
• Laverne Murphy, “The school should not be a dictatorship. The decision to mask a child should be left up to the parents. These masks can be doing more harm than good for a child and can be such a distraction to the child’s learning abilities.”
• Stephanie Powell, “My children will not be wearing masks for this school year.”
• Bob Zupancich, “Erik Erie should be fired! I’ve heard nothing but negative things about him!! No masks!!”
• Nick Wognum, “The school board set up a committee to deal with these issues. This decision was made by the superintendent, not the committee.”
• Cael Neilsen, “I as a free American with constitutional rights decline to comply with this tyrannical mask mandate.”
• Tim Williamson, “It’s bull s**t to wear masks.”
The board listened to comments for about 80 minutes. Later, during Erie’s update on the Safe Learning Reopening Plan, members weighed in on the issue.
“I am in favor of the mask mandate and hope we will be able to lift it in a short period of time,” Marsnik said. “To me the mask mandate is not about freedom and personal choice.” He was shouted down by members of the audience.
After a pause, Marsnik continued, “It is about making sure that our students and staff have a safe place to learn and work. A place where the risk of illness is minimized. It is the goal of us on the school board to make sure this happens.”
The board chair recited the district’s mission statement: “The mission of Ely Public Schools is to educate all students in a positive and safe environment to become respectful and responsible persons who are lifelong learners.”
After citing declining statewide MCA test results and the challenges of virtual learning, Marsnik asserted, “I want the kids in school. I’m a school teacher. I taught school for 35 years. We all want the kids in school because we all know they learn better when they are in the classroom with a teacher. This is what we want. Mask mandates and vaccinations are two of the mitigation tools we have that will help us to make this happen.”
Marsnik related information that COVID-19 vaccination trials for students under the age of 12 are ongoing and could be available this fall. He was shouted down again by members of the audience and was forced to pound his gavel for order.
“We represent all of the people in this district,” he said.
The other members voiced support for the mask mandate decision. They agreed that transparency and communication to district residents was lacking and called for improvements in that area.
The board will review the reopening plan and mask mandate at their study session on Monday, Sept. 27.