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UPDATED: Audience members speak out before Grand Forks School Board approves recommendation for optional mask-wearing

Recommendation goes into effect Wednesday, Aug. 11

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Approximately 25 audience members at the Monday, Aug. 9, meeting of the Grand Forks School Board spoke for and against the idea of imposing mask mandates for the upcoming school year.

The meeting lasted until nearly 10 p.m. as the board heard the arguments before ultimately voting 6-2 in favor of a recommendation that masks be worn by everyone in all school buildings. However, masks are not required.

The recommendation goes into effect at 8 a.m. Wednesday, Aug. 11.

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Emily Frelich, who identified herself as a “concerned parent, voter and tax-paying citizen,” said the School Board has talked recently about “gaining financial trust” in how it allocates district resources.

article7147115.ece POLL: Do you agree with the Grand Forks School Board's decision to recommend optional-mask wearing in school buildings? Do you agree with the Grand Forks School Board's decision to recommend optional-mask wearing in school buildings? Yes No Undecided

The board’s vote concerning masks is “an opportunity to gain not just financial trust, but physical, emotional and moral trust,” said Frelich, who has four children.

Mandating masks is “taking choice away from people,” she said. “These kids are not yours; they’re ours. Medical decisions should remain with parents.”

Nikki Berg Burin, who spoke in favor of making masks mandatory, said her two children will attend middle school this year. Because of the pandemic, “neither has seen the inside of a classroom since March of last year” and they’re anxious to attend school in person.

“Distance learning has been very challenging,” she said, and “the most challenging has been the social and emotional toll.”

Her youngest child is too young to be vaccinated, Burin said. “Universal masking is the best way. Vaccination and universal masking are essential to protect students and staff.”

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She questioned why the board was considering recommending, but not requiring, masking.

“A recommendation has no teeth,” she said. “A requirement will save lives.”

In her remarks to the board, Debbie Todhunter, whose children attended Grand Forks public schools, emphasized masks’ “unhealthy effects on children,” citing increased levels of carbon dioxide and “the inability to read faces of teachers and peers.”

“I appreciate the option to wear masks,” she said, noting that those who feel protected can wear them and those who don’t, can choose not to.

Brooke Van Looy, who spoke in favor of universal masking for children, said that last year, the “success (of requiring masks) made it worth the effort.”

“Making masking optional will ensure mask-wearing will be minimal,” Van Looy said, noting that the district “will be forced to move to distance learning much sooner and more often.”

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She and her husband kept their children out of school last year, she said, and “we are sick about sending them back with fewer restrictions.”

One audience member quoted Bible verses in an argument against masks.

Another, Travis Hendrickson, compared masks – which he called a “face diaper” – to underwear, noting that in his opinion, neither works to contain human airborne aerosols.

“My kids are not guinea pigs,” said Hendrickson, who has four children in the local school system. “They’re never going to get the vaccine or wear masks. Remember what country you live in. This is the United States, not Nazi Germany.”

Voting in favor of supporting the recommendation were board members Chris Douthit, Shannon Mikula, Doug Carpenter, Bill Palmiscno, Eric Lunn and Amber Flynn. Voting against it were Jacqueline Hassett and Cynthia Shabb. Jeff Manley was absent.

Hassett said she is in favor of mandatory, not optional, mask-wearing in schools in order to protect students and staff and those who are “vulnerable.”

Several members said conditions regarding the delta variant of the coronavirus could change and they want to be flexible in decision-making as the start of the school year nears. They are keeping an eye on public health data.

"In four weeks, it could be worse, or (the effects) could be nonexistent," said Lunn, a pediatrician.

The board plans to meet two more times, on Aug. 16 and 23, before schools open.

Melissa Buchhop, president of the Grand Forks Education Association, said teachers have not been surveyed but informal feedback indicates they are "very split" on the mask question.

Some are in favor, she said. Others say, "I don't want to be in a mask this year; it was very hard."

According to data presented Monday, Aug. 9, to the Grand Forks City Council, more county residents are testing positive for COVID-19 and a higher percentage of tests overall are positive. The City Council was told by Grand Forks Public Health officials that about 0.6 county residents out of 100,000 tested positive for the virus during a span in July. The number had risen to 7.35 as of early this week.

As a national debate about masks and schools continues, the American Academy of Pediatrics last month urged schools nationwide to require masks at schools, as reported by U.S. News and World Report.

In East Grand Forks, the School Board on Monday decided to hold a special meeting at 7:30 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 17, in hopes it will come to a decision on whether masks will be required or recommended for students or teachers in the fall semester. The move to have a special meeting comes after not reaching a decision in Monday's regularly scheduled meeting.

article7147115.ece POLL: Do you agree with the Grand Forks School Board's decision to recommend optional-mask wearing in school buildings? Do you agree with the Grand Forks School Board's decision to recommend optional-mask wearing in school buildings? Yes No Undecided

In other action, the board approved the hiring of four employees:

  • Garrett Litzinger, for a new 40% position as social studies teacher, Grand Forks Central High School, $25,595;

  • Ella Miller, health teacher, Valley Middle School, $42,657;

  • Brooke Naughton, social worker, Wilder Elementary School and Nathan Twining School, GFAFB, $50,634; and

  • Clarissa Pearson, second-grade teacher, Lake Agassiz Elementary School, $42,657.

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