Enrollment at Sacred Heart School in East Grand Forks has climbed nearly 7% this fall compared to last spring, but Carl Adolphson, president, hesitates to attribute the increase to a masking policy that’s less restrictive than public schools.

Sacred Heart School requires indoor masking for daycare through grade 6, but not for grades 7-12, Adolphson said. Grades 7-12 students and staff occupy an upper floor of the school and there “is not much crossover” between younger and older students and their respective staffs.

“I think our inquiries have been probably higher than usual,” Adolphson said, but he hasn’t heard people, who tour the school, express dissatisfaction with Grand Forks public school policy, which mandates universal masking in all school buildings. “But we have been pretty steady as far as inquiries and the number of tours that we’re giving, so there are people that are exploring their options, I guess.”

While Sacred Heart School enrollment has increased, the Grand Forks school district has reported a slight decrease in early enrollment, a dip that could be attributable to a number of factors, officials say.

The question of whether masking in schools should be required or optional has ignited passions and controversy from both ends of the spectrum of public opinion.

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At local public school board meetings recently, dozens of parents and other concerned citizens have voiced their viewpoints, mostly in a calm manner but sometimes in emotional pleas and angry diatribes aimed at the public servants tasked with school policy decision-making.

A local group staged a protest against universal masking recently outside Century Elementary School.

Response to policy

At Sacred Heart School, students and staff have responded “really well” to the mask policy, Adolphson said. “The students, especially our elementary students, they’re just so used to it now that they wear them and go about their business. We haven’t had issues.

“Obviously, we have parents who are on both ends of the spectrum regarding masks. Even those that don’t want their children wearing masks, they voice their opinion -- but, if it is what it is, they’re OK with it,” he said. “But, obviously, it’s a ‘hot button’ with people.”

School administrators use a matrix, through the diocese, to check on COVID numbers every two weeks, Adolphson said. “And then every two weeks or so we’ll make a decision if we’re going to continue on with the masks or not.”

They analyze local, Polk County and school COVID numbers, he said. “Currently, we have one teacher out -- COVID positive -- in the elementary, and we have a couple of students in the high school out.

“In the elementary (grades), we do not have any out for close contact because they’re all wearing masks,” he said. “A couple of kids in grades 7-12 are quarantined as close contacts.”

Some students, 12 or older, are already vaccinated.

“We do have some students that are not vaccinated but have chosen to wear a mask in the high school, which is encouraged,” he said. “One student who would have been a close contact isn’t, because they were choosing to wear a mask.

“So it’s not ideal but we’re doing our best to navigate through the situation and keep our families and their students as safe as possible, and educate -- keep kids in person -- that’s obviously the goal,” he said.

Bishop Richard Pates, apostolic administrator for the Diocese of Crookston, who set the school mask policy, "is a very strong advocate for, if you’re able to get vaccinated -- he thinks that for the betterment of others and those with underlying issues -- that, if you can get vaccinated, he feels like you should. But at the same time he respects parents’ choice as well.”

Policies must be ‘fluid’

At Sacred Heart School, plans concerning the school’s COVID response are “fluid” and could change, Adolphson said.

He is not alone in that assessment.

Adolphson and other private school administrators say they are monitoring the situation in their schools -- as well as community and county cases -- and will make adjustments regarding masking and other mitigation strategies, if necessary.

In August, the Grand Forks School Board voted 8-1 to mandate universal masking inside school buildings. The lone no vote was cast by Bill Palmiscno who said he would have preferred the board set a specific date, possibly in October, to reconsider and perhaps change the policy. He said many in the community do not agree with masking in schools at all.

The East Grand Forks School Board voted unanimously to mandate universal masking indoors for grades K-6 at a Sept. 13 meeting.

East Grand Forks public school enrollment has increased, by 210 students, compared to last year, according to Superintendent Mike Kolness.

Private schools on both sides of the Red River have established masking policies in light of changing circumstances.

At Holy Family-St. Mary’s School in Grand Forks, masks are optional for students and staff members, Principal Katie Mayer said in an email to the Herald. “We have stakeholders with moderate to strong views on both sides (of the mask issue).”

That school, which enrolls 102 students in prekindergarten through fifth grade, has not seen new enrollment due to its optional mask policy, Mayer said.

“If there is a positive case in a classroom, we will have the positive case fulfill the quarantine period (according to) Public Health,” she said. “Students in the class can opt to come to school masked for the next two weeks as long as they don’t develop symptoms.

“If the parent does not want them to wear a mask or does not feel comfortable with the situation, they can choose to keep their child home and the teacher will assign work for the two-week period and arrange for check-ins when needed,” Mayer said.

“If there is a household close contact, we will require that student or staff member to quarantine, as well. We will monitor and evaluate our situation daily and make changes as needed,” she said.

Riverside Christian School in East Grand Forks is in compliance with all Minnesota state mandates for COVID-19 response and prevention, Principal Cindy Waind said in an email to the Herald.

The Minnesota Department of Health is advising schools to follow the CDC recommendation of universal indoor masking, meaning that all students, aged 2 and older, and staff, teachers and visitors, regardless of their vaccination status, wear masks.

Earlier this month, the state health department updated the close contact definition to reflect a new exception in national guidance that excludes students in an indoor classroom from quarantine when both the case and close contact were wearing a well-fitting mask.

Riverside Christian School’s administration and school board will continue to monitor the situation and update the school’s families as needed, Waind said.

“Our parent population seems satisfied” with the policies the school and its staff are following, she said.

In Minnesota, all people are required by CDC order to wear face coverings on all public transportation, including school buses, according to the state’s Department of Education.