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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Ely school board braces for anti-maskers

COVID-19 mandate decisions on agenda for Monday meeting

Keith Vandervort
Posted 10/6/21

ELY – With two active cases of COVID-19 reported in the Washington school here last week and this, and biweekly case rates continuing an upward spike for the northern part of the county, the …

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Ely school board braces for anti-maskers

COVID-19 mandate decisions on agenda for Monday meeting


ELY – With two active cases of COVID-19 reported in the Washington school here last week and this, and biweekly case rates continuing an upward spike for the northern part of the county, the school’s protective face mask mandate will likely continue this fall.

ISD 696 school board members will meet Monday for their monthly business meeting and could face another unruly crowd of hundreds of people demanding that school officials relax COVID mitigation efforts in the school buildings.

The Ely Safe Learning Plan Advisory Council returned to weekly meetings last week and continues to address the spiking case rate data in the area as they work to keep students in the classroom despite guiding parameters that would have dictated a return to distance learning if the data were present last school year.

School board members will likely address an agenda item requested by Tony Colarich calling for the vetting and approval of all advisory council decisions pertaining to public health efforts. School board members last year, and again this year, authorized the school district administration to make such decisions for mandates within the school buildings.

Quicker reaction time by the administration, as coronavirus case rate data changes daily or weekly, was cited as being more responsive than waiting for a monthly school board meeting to decide how to keep students safe.

Colarich said, “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.”

Four school board member votes would be needed to rescind the board’s current policy and to replace the administration’s safe learning mitigation authorization and put the responsibility on the school board.

The advisory council last week focused on the metrics related to a possible dialing back of mitigation efforts. The data appears to be going in the wrong direction.

On Sept. 30, the district reported a positive coronavirus case in Washington Elementary. Administrators reported another case on Tuesday in the elementary school. The current COVID-19 active positive test count is at three cases. The cumulative positive test count is five in just the first month of the new school year.

In an overview of the coronavirus pandemic released last week, Amy Westbrook, St. Louis County Public Health Division director, said, “Area hospitals have been at capacity for weeks and have had to divert patients. More people in St. Louis County tested positive for COVID-19 in the last week than last year at the this time.” She repeated her point, “Even with approximately 120,000 of our 200,000 residents now vaccinated, more people are getting sick now than a year ago at this time.”

Westbrook continued, “There is a lot of misinformation circulating about vaccines, face masks and other prevention measures, And there may be some mistrust of health experts, We urge you to talk to your doctor or a trusted medical professional.”

In just three months, the bi-weekly COVID-19 case rates for northern St. Louis County went from 1.24 positive cases per 10,000 people in July, to 8.67, and then 13.9 just before the Labor Day, when the mask mandate was implemented. Since the start of the school year, the case rate has exploded to 19.2, 29.1, 32.2, 47.68 and 67.5. Aubrie Hoover, of the St. Louis County Health Department, predicted a positive rate of 80.50 for this week.

Superintendent Erik Erie said the positive case rate should be indicating a downward trend for at least a couple of consecutive weeks to dial back the health mandates, including mask requirements.

Hoover said another area school district has put a positive case rate of 30 or under as a point to relax mask mandates.

“We are not seeing a peak within the next two weeks,” she said. “A neighboring county has a higher rate now than they ever did last year. We are going to go up, especially in central and northern St. Louis County.”

The vaccination rate is another metric to be considered.

“We are at 41 percent here for those ages 12 to 18,” Erie said. “Having that vaccination rate at more than 50 percent would seem to be ideal.”

Health officials at the Essentia Ely Clinic and the Ely Bloomenson Community Hospital are making plans to implement a vaccine protocol for children in the 5-to-11 age group once the vaccines are authorized later this year.

The Ely Community Voice group, sponsor of the petition drive to get some 300-plus signatures demanding the mask mandate be rescinded, hosted a speech by a retired Ely doctor, Steve Park, who spoke at the Ely Senior Center late last month. He reportedly told the crowd that masks don’t work in stopping the spread of the coronavirus and urged those in attendance to eat healthy and take more Vitamin D as a way to combat COVID-19.

At last month’s ISD 696 school board meeting, held in the gymnasium because of an overflow crowd, hundreds of petition signers demanded the school administration rescind the 11th-hour face mask requirement implemented at the start of the school year.

School board members, and Erie in particular, were treated with disrespect by some in the crowd and the meeting was interrupted numerous times.

ISD 696 administrators and elected leaders hope there is not a repeat of the antics on display at last month’s meeting. Ely Police Chief Chad Houde attended the meeting last month. Ely is just one of many communities around the country experiencing a backlash against COVID mitigation efforts.

According to a report last week by the Associated Press, a group representing school board members around the country asked President Joe Biden for federal assistance to investigate and stop threats made over policies including mask mandates, likening the vitriol to a form of domestic terrorism.

The request by the National School Boards Association demonstrates the level of unruliness that has engulfed local education meetings across the country during the pandemic, with board members regularly confronted and threatened by angry protesters.

School board members are largely unpaid volunteers, parents and former educators who step forward to shape school policy, choose a superintendent and review the budget, but they have been frightened at how their jobs have suddenly become a culture war battleground. The climate has led a growing number to resign or decide against seeking reelection.

“Whatever you feel about masks, it should not reach this level of rhetoric,” NSBA Interim Executive Director Chip Slaven told the Associated Press.

The association asked for the federal government to get involved to investigate cases where threats or violence could be handled as violations of federal laws protecting civil rights. It also asked for the Justice Department, FBI, Homeland Security and Secret Service to help monitor threat levels and assess risks to students, educators, board members and school buildings.

“As these acts of malice, violence, and threats against public school officials have increased, the classification of these heinous actions could be the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes,” the association wrote.

The association represents more than 90,000 school board members in 14,000 public school districts.

The Associated Press contributed to this report


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