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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Ely School Board takes over decision-making on COVID-19

Rescinds school superintendent’s authority to set pandemic policies

Keith Vandervort
Posted 10/13/21

ELY – ISD 696 school board members Monday night rescinded the authority of the superintendent here to implement COVID-19 public health mitigation strategies and will approve all changes to …

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Ely School Board takes over decision-making on COVID-19

Rescinds school superintendent’s authority to set pandemic policies

Posted

ELY – ISD 696 school board members Monday night rescinded the authority of the superintendent here to implement COVID-19 public health mitigation strategies and will approve all changes to school safe learning policies regarding the coronavirus pandemic themselves.
The board gave the authority to Superintendent Erik Erie in the 2020-21 school year as a way for the school district to quickly implement COVID mitigation strategies in the face of rising or decreasing cases in the school and community. The board adopted the same resolution in August for this school year, but has now reversed course in light of pushback from some in the community who oppose the face-mask mandate implemented at the beginning of the school year.
The face mask mandate remains in place for both Ely school buildings.
Recommendations to make changes to the school’s COVID-19 mitigation efforts will continue to be developed by the ISD 696 administration in collaboration with the safe school advisory council and local medical professionals.
Board member Tony Colarich called for the resolution reversal.
“A lot has changed in the last year,” he said. “COVID is still here. For what happens next year and the following years, I don’t want those decisions to continue to be made by somebody who is not elected. The superintendent recommends policy. Making policy is the responsibility of the (school) board.”
In responding to a true COVID emergency, the school board can issue a 24-hour meeting notice. A regular or special board meeting can be called with a 72-hour notice.
“Emergency meetings can be called within 24 hours when we need immediate board action,” board chair Ray Marsnik noted.
The board unanimously adopted the resolution.
Erie, along with the district’s other administrators, K-6 Principal Anne Oelke and 6-12 Principal Megan Anderson, are tasked with consulting weekly with the Ely Safe Learning Plan Advisory Council (ESLPAC). Consisting of school staff, a school board member, parents, students, local physicians and nurses, and the St. Louis County Public Health Department, ESLPAC reviews and discusses local and regional COVID-19 case rate data and trends, existing cases and quarantines, and other public health information to determine local strategies to navigate through the continuing coronavirus pandemic.
ISD 696 administrators, as recommended by the school’s advisory council, have been implementing wide-ranging COVID-19 mitigation strategies.
Last year, under the peacetime emergency declared by Gov. Tim Walz, the Minnesota Department of Health and Minnesota Department of Education developed specific policies and procedures school districts were to follow, with some leeway for districts to tailor local decisions to fit local conditions. For example, masks were mandatory for those in school buildings, but districts could consider multiple sources of information in determining their learning models.
Without the peacetime emergency, the state Health and Education departments no longer have the authority to impose COVID-related mandates on school districts. Decisions about all mitigation strategies that have been strongly recommended by those departments and federal health officials, such as mandatory masking, are now in the hands of local school districts.
Just days before the start of the current school year, faced with an alarming increase in local COVID-19 case rate data during the last month of summer, ELSPAC recommended a mandatory face mask requirement within Ely school buildings.
A group of community members, called Ely Community Voice, pushed back on the mask mandate and last month presented the school board with a petition, signed by more than 300 people, calling for the district to scrap the requirement and leave decisions about masking to parents/guardians.
Last month, when Colarich called for pulling administrative authority to implement public health mitigation efforts, the school board also wanted to see a strategy for how and when mandates would be eased to get face masks off students while at the same time keeping the classrooms full.
Erie presented the board with a revision of the Ely Schools Safe Learning Reopening Plan Monday night.
“These revisions mainly cover the conditions and metrics for a change to less restrictive measures that the school board is looking for,” he said. The revised plan was presented to the school board on Monday, following the weekly ELSPAC meeting last Thursday and Erie’s weekend work to revise the plan.
“We heard the message that you are looking for metrics, but that doesn’t mean that we are totally comfortable doing that,” he said.
He noted that many area schools are not looking at dialing back health measures as COVID-19 case rate data continues to increase.
“Cook County, Hibbing, Duluth, and International Falls don’t have any metrics. Rock Ridge does. ISD 2142 and Mesabi East are not even masking. Vermilion Community College is masking,” he said.
The revised metrics for dialing back the face mask requirement in Ely schools include:
• A bi-weekly COVID-19 case rate for Northern St. Louis of less than 30 (per 10,000 residents) for two consecutive weeks. The case rate has been steadily increasing from July and is at 88.5 this week.
• Local COVID-19 ZIP Code case rate less than 30 for two consecutive weeks. That case rate was at 33.82 last week.
• Vaccination rate for students ages 12-18 in Memorial School is greater than 50 percent. The current vaccination rate is 41 percent.
“If it was up to the administration here, I don’t think we want to be boxed in (on these numbers),” Erie said, “and we would want to move when we feel the conditions are right.” The presence of all three conditions would initiate an examination and probable recommendation to move to a face-mask recommendation protocol in the Memorial building.
The same three conditions would apply in the Washington building once vaccinations are approved for students ages 5-11.
“According to St. Louis County Public Health (officials) we may be looking at early November for vaccinations to be available for them,” Erie said.
He added an exception to the metrics.
“If a classroom or program shows an increase of positive cases, the classroom and/or program could be required to wear masks for a specific period of time.”
Tom Omerza, who is the school board representative on the ESLPAC, said he came out of the recent meeting “happy that we are starting to see some metrics and happy that something was introduced.” He also noted that he was not prepared to vote on any metrics plan on Monday night. “I want to see input from parents, administration, and the school board. We need time to digest this and get some feedback. I think it is too fast, but I don’t want to go too slow. To me this is a really good start.”
Marsnik described the role of the school board.
“The board’s role is not to make recommendations. The recommendations have to come from the administration. When we start making recommendations, that goes under the heading of micro-managing.”
Marsnik also pushed back against those in the community who have charged that the district superintendent is making the decisions.
“That’s not true. He is a spokesperson, but he is making these decisions in collaboration with our principals and the ELSPAC advisory committee and our medical professionals,” he said.
Erie agreed with Omerza. “Ideally, we would like more time and involve more people and get more feedback and get more direct guidance and see what other people are doing. You wanted metrics and this is a start,” he said.
The board voted unanimously to remove the “Metrics to Dial Back Mitigation Strategies” from the Ely Public School Safe Learning Reopening Plan 2021-2022 to give the school administration more time to develop and fine tune a complete strategy, and called for at least four more community members, such as parents and students, to be on ELSPAC. The council was set to meet on Thursday, Oct. 14. School board members will schedule a special meeting to approve any revised COVID-19 mitigation strategies as recommended by the administration.

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