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As COVID cases climb, Fargo, Moorhead school districts still poised to end mask mandates

Fargo and Moorhead public schools with no longer require masks for all grades by Feb. 14. All Fargo students will be allowed to go maskless staring Jan. 17.

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Independence Elementary first grade teacher Sydney Bailey speaks to her students on the first day of school in West Fargo on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020. West Fargo Public Schools did not require masks for the 2021-2022 school year.
David Samson / The Forum
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FARGO — As Moorhead and Fargo public schools begin to phase out mask requirements, administrators are hearing a litany of arguments for and against stricter mitigation strategies.

But the districts aren’t planning on making any changes yet, even as the omicron variant of the coronavirus is spreading rapidly across the metro area and the county.

The latest Fargo Public Schools update reported that 137 students tested positive for COVID-19 during the week of Jan. 3-7, and since the beginning of the school year a total of 1,117 students have tested positive. The district is set to end their mask requirement on Jan. 17.

West Fargo Public Schools has recommended masks but not required them since the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year. The district’s latest report filed on Tuesday, Jan. 11, indicated 82 students and actively had COVID-19 — nearly double the 43 active student cases as of the previous Friday. There have been 1,391 West Fargo students who contracted COVID-19 since the beginning of the school year.

Parts of West Fargo Public Schools with additional mitigation strategies in place include Cheney Middle School Gamers' Club, which was listed as under quarantine and testing, and Transition Academy, which was listed as being under a full school quarantine on Jan. 11.

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For an entire school to move to mandatory masking, 4% of the combined staff and student population has to be identified as active positive cases, said Heather Leas, district spokeswoman.

In Moorhead Area Public Schools , the first Spuds to take their masks off were preschoolers after Christmas break.

Every two weeks, a new group will be allowed to shed the mask, starting with high school students on Jan. 17, middle school students on Jan. 31 and elementary students Feb. 14.

As of Jan. 6, MAPS reported 145 students who tested positive for COVID-19, which was more than triple the previous update the week before Christmas break when there were 45 active student cases.

When asked by concerned parents if Fargo Public Schools will postpone the end to mask mandates, school board member Robin Nelson reminds them that the district adheres to recommendations by Fargo Cass Public Health and the North Dakota Department of Health.

“There seems to exist a misconception that the board approved specific mitigation strategies, especially masking. To the contrary, the board never approved the practice of face masks or any other mitigation strategies,” Nelson said in a Jan. 7 email.

If local and state health departments change their recommendations, then Fargo Public Schools could continue masking, Nelson said, adding that over the past week the number of people wanting to keep the mask mandate in schools in place is overwhelming those who are opposed by 10 to 1.

Desi Fleming, director of Fargo Cass Public health, said during a Fargo City Commission meeting on Monday that the department is starting to see the impacts of the omicron variant, which comprises about 70% of the 1,172 positive cases in Cass County.

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The next three weeks will be “incredibly challenging for health care,” Fleming said during the meeting. “Masking continues to be a topic of great division nationwide and in our community. It’s important to understand that masking is not a stand-alone strategy or long-term solution in and of itself."

Due to the infectiousness of the omicron variant, cloth masks will provide little value, and an N-95 or higher quality mask will provide more protection if worn correctly, Fleming said.

“Vaccinate now, whatever you are due for, first dose, second dose or booster,” she said, adding that masking in public places, avoiding large gatherings and following quarantine and isolation guidelines are important.

“The reality is, do mandates work? Yes. But they only work if that is a consistent strategy throughout the community," she added. "Unless you have an all-in strategy for everybody, all the time, everywhere, it’s really probably not going to make an impact going forward."

In Moorhead, in-school close-contact quarantine also ends at different dates for all students in January. For pre-K and grades 9-12, close-contact quarantine ended Jan. 3. For middle school students, it will end on Jan.17, and it will end Jan. 31 for K-4 students, according to the district’s website.

Fargo Public Schools will also stop identifying or notifying close contacts to a positive COVID-19 case on Jan. 17 unless otherwise recommended by health department authorities.

Fargo Public Schools will provide a general exposure notification to staff and students who shared a class with an individual who tested positive for COVID-19, according to a Jan. 10 email to parents by Superintendent Rupak Gandhi. That does not include contact in common spaces such as the cafeteria.

“Additionally, participants in a co-curricular or extracurricular activity will not be notified of a positive case amongst another participant or leader of that activity, unless FPS is directed to provide notification by the North Dakota Department of Health,” Gandhi said.

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The district strongly recommends students continue to become vaccinated. Unvaccinated students will be strongly recommended to quarantine from school for 10 days from the onset of a household member testing positive, Gandhi wrote.

Students who are vaccinated and have a household member test positive can continue to attend school with proof of vaccination as long as they remain symptom-free.

Proof of vaccination for students can be uploaded to the student’s PowerSchool account, a website where they can also access grades and other pertinent educational information, Gandhi said.

C.S. Hagen is an award-winning journalist currently covering the education and activist beats mainly in North Dakota and Minnesota.
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