BISMARCK — After some North Dakota school districts publicly said they will not enforce the new statewide mask mandate, the Department of Public Instruction is doubling down and saying schools must follow the order.
School districts are required to comply with state and federal laws, meaning the new order must be followed in school settings, according to Kirsten Baesler, North Dakota's superintendent of public instruction. The order, aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19, says all people in public indoor settings must wear a face-covering, and in outdoor settings when a social distance of 6 feet cannot be maintained.
Carolyn Eide, superintendent of Tioga Public Schools, said many students and teachers in the district do not wear masks in school. She said more than 60% of community members and teachers said in a recent survey they are not in favor of mandating masks in school. Eide's district in northwestern North Dakota has about 470 students.
Earlier this week, the district's school board voted to not require masks in school. Eide said the vote puts the district in violation of the statewide mask order. And on Wednesday, Nov. 18, Baesler reached out to Eide, after news broke of the district's noncompliance and encouraged her to compel the school board to reconsider, Eide said.
If the school district continues to defy the order, it could lose its state aid funding and be fined, and the district, particularly school board members, could be held liable, Eide said.
"Any time a person, including a school district or school board, disregards laws they do so with the understanding that consequences can occur," Baesler said Thursday, Nov. 19, in a statement to The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. "We are talking with our attorney and carefully examining the potential consequences and sanctions that could result, and encourage school boards and districts to do so as well."
Baesler also said schools that do not follow the order may be met with legal action from Interim State Health Officer Dirk Wilke, as he has the power to do so if his orders are not followed.
"I think it would be prudent for a school district to anticipate that the state health officer is exploring enforcement," Baesler said.
In the Tioga School District, Eide said many teachers and students currently do not wear masks in school, though they follow other virus mitigation strategies like washing hands and using hand sanitizer.
In the wake of the new mask mandate, Alexander Public Schools stated it will encourage the order, but it "will not be policing it."
"My staff does ask the kids to abide by the law," said Leslie Bieber, Alexander Public Schools superintendent. "When they don't, then, if we feel it necessary, we call law enforcement to respond accordingly."
Alexander Public Schools is in western North Dakota in McKenzie County, and the McKenzie County sheriff has been adamant that his officers will not be enforcing the mandate and encouraging education instead.
"We are abiding by the executive order," Bieber said. "It's just not up to us to issue a citation. It's up to local law enforcement as the order reads."
The Tioga School Board is planning to meet in the next few days to reconsider complying with the law, Eide said.
Baelser said to the best of the Department of Public Instruction's knowledge, other schools around the state are adjusting to comply with the new mask mandate.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at email@example.com.