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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Ely school district continues with face mask mandate

Keith Vandervort
Posted 9/29/21

ELY – As ISD 696 administrators continue to monitor dramatically rising COVID-19 case rate data in the Ely area, revisions to the Safe Learning Reopening Plan for the current school year …

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Ely school district continues with face mask mandate

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ELY – As ISD 696 administrators continue to monitor dramatically rising COVID-19 case rate data in the Ely area, revisions to the Safe Learning Reopening Plan for the current school year continue to be made.
Superintendent Erik Erie and the administrative team met with the Safe School Learning Plan Advisory Council last week to review plan topics and language, including the campus-wide face covering requirements recently implemented as a public health precaution to keep the schools open and students in the classroom.
Erie asked school board members Monday night to review the draft and propose any changes so the plan can be distributed to district families.
“In early July, when we were planning for the (upcoming)school year, our biweekly (COVID-19) case rate was at 1.24 (per 10,000 people),” Erie said. “Next week it is estimated to be at 65. We are now at 47.68.”
As far as vaccinations for coronavirus, the Ely school district encourages but does not require the practice. A vaccination clinic is being scheduled for this fall on the school campus, according to Erie.
“The vaccination rate in northern St. Louis County is at 66.85 percent. In Duluth, it is at 73.66 percent,” he said. “That means as much as two-thirds of our population in the northern part of the county has been vaccinated. For Ely students, ages 12-18, it is at 41 percent.”
Other school districts in northeast Minnesota are also working to mitigate COVID-19. Amid relentless and vocal pushback from some Rock Ridge district residents Monday night, that school board voted 5-4 to require face masks on their campuses.
“Hibbing and Cook County recently went to face mask requirements,” Erie said. “Other districts by Duluth are also going that route. We are not alone in doing that.”
COVID-19 outbreaks are more likely in schools that don’t require students and staff to wear masks, new data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows. Two studies released last Friday support the CDC’s recommendation for universal indoor masking in schools, according to reporting from CNN.
One study in Arizona showed schools with no masking requirement were about 3.5 times more likely to have a COVID-19 outbreak than schools that had a universal masking requirement. A second study showed counties across the U.S. where schools required mask use also had less transmission of the virus in the community in general.
Unlike last year when federal, state and county governmental entities mandated public health measures to help curb the spread of COVID-19, no such direction exists this school year, leaving districts to make their own decisions amid surging Delta variant rates.
CDC and the Minnesota Department of Health have made recommendations “but they are not a policy-making body,” Erie said.
Board member Tony Colarich noted that ISD 696 superintendent Erie “makes the call” on Ely school safe learning plans and he “signed off” last year on giving Erie the authority to pivot and make changes as community and school COVID conditions change,
“Since then, nobody thought that we would be into a year or two of COVID and nobody knows what will happen next year or the following year,” Colarich continued. “I would recommend that information that comes from the (safe school learning plan) advisory committee is vetted by the six (school board) directors, with due diligence by the six directors, and be voted on by the six directors. To me, that would be a good policy and would be the right way to do it. The (school)board would make the call on these decisions and would vote on it.”
He requested that his policy change be on the agenda of the next business meeting on Monday, Oct. 11. Board chair Ray Marsnik agreed to honor Colarich’s request. In order for the motion to advance for discussion and vote, Colarich would need support on his motion.
Last month, all the other school board members voiced their agreement with the ISD 696 administration’s public health face mask mandate, and have been in support of the school’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Four school board member votes would be needed to rescind the board’s current policy, and to replace the administration’s safe learning plan authorization and put the responsibility on the school board.

Maximum levy set
In a special school board meeting Monday night, a proposed property tax levy for 2021 was set by unanimous vote at $2,215,911 as the preliminary maximum amount.
This represents a 6.6-percent decrease ($157,564) from the 2020 levy of $2,373,475.
The budget and final property tax levy for next year will be approved by the school board in December.
“We are approving the maximum levy,” said board chair Ray Marsnik, “which means that it can go down, but cannot go up.”
Superintendent Erik Erie said the lower tax levy next year is “mostly from prior year adjustments” especially related to students counts. “We are estimating what our student count will be two years from now,” he said.
Total Taconite Production Tax adjustments show a 30.3-percent decrease for next year, from $91,806 to $64,031.

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