FARGO — Wearing masks for protection against the coronavirus has been one of the more controversial issues during the 13-month-long pandemic, but as infection rates fall and vaccinations rise, some school districts are loosening their mandates.

On Tuesday, April 27, Fargo Public School Board member David Paulson made the motion to end mask mandates on May 3 for elementary school playgrounds and during outdoor activities in middle and high schools. Paulson's motion was countered by a different motion, which passed with a vote of seven to two, to table the idea to be discussed by governance and then at the May 11 board meeting.

Paulson and board member Jennifer Benson were the dissenting votes.

Already, Bismarck Public Schools decided on Monday, April 26 to end wearing masks in school after Superintendent Jason Hornbacher made the recommendation, according to district spokesperson Steve Koontz.

Citing Gov. Doug Burgum’s decision to end the coronavirus-related state of emergency, teacher and staff vaccinations and low numbers of COVID-19 cases among students, the mask mandate in Bismarck's public schools will end on May 4.

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On Tuesday, April 27, the state’s department of health COVID-19 school dashboard showed 33 students currently positive for COVID-19 in Burleigh County and 25 students positive for COVID-19 in Cass County.

Before Paulson's motion was made, six parents came to the meeting to ask that parents — not school officials — make medical choices for their children.

“Did we elect you all to make medical choices for our children? We’re asking you to give our rights back as parents,” said Cassandra Schmidt, a parent with children in Fargo schools.

Alyssa Motschenbacher, a parent of two children in Fargo schools, said kids shouldn't sit in a “gross and soggy mask” while interacting with peers and teachers.

“To some it’s dehumanizing and unnecessary. This wasn’t a burden for our children to bear. Can we please let them breathe fresh air?” Motschenbacher said.

“Is this a medical device? Is this a piece of paper? I’m wondering who is deciding what. I think it’s kind of sad that we say kids are resilient. We have this Swiss cheese thing here and say this might work, and yet we put all this pressure on the children,” said Nicole Larson, another parent.

Fargo parent Kirk Wetch interrupts the Fargo Public School Board meeting Tuesday, April 27 to show his dissatisfaction with mask regulations inside school buildings. C.S. Hagen / The Forum
Fargo parent Kirk Wetch interrupts the Fargo Public School Board meeting Tuesday, April 27 to show his dissatisfaction with mask regulations inside school buildings. C.S. Hagen / The Forum

After the parents finished speaking, Kirk Wetch interrupted the board meeting questioning if the school board was accepting bribes to stipulate mask wearing.

“Are you people getting bought off to put masks on these kids? I’m a taxpayer. You guys should be ashamed of yourselves. There is some kind of money driver right here,” said Wetch, before board member Jim Johnson and a friend escorted him from the boardroom.

Board member Robin Nelson supports masks for the time being, but introduced a resolution by email to board members to begin discussing an end to mask requirements. She pointed to the city’s mask mandate that was allowed to expire on March 22, adding that the COVID-19 Instructional Plan Committee is no longer scheduling meetings, and teachers and staff have all had opportunities to get vaccinated.

The decisions to end mask regulations within school districts contradicts recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the North Dakota Department of Health, said Brenton Nesemeier, an epidemiologist with the North Dakota Department of Health.

Nesemeier is unsure how districts are interpreting the data, he said.

“We would still recommend masking in schools, and the CDC recommends masking,” Nesemeier said.

Board member Tracie Newman, who is also a pediatrician, said the combination of being indoors, unvaccinated children and no masks will lead to an increase in COVID-19 cases.

"We have worked so hard to bring our students back to in-person learning," Newman said. "What we're doing is working. The guidance we're getting from the state is to continue masking. It is not a debate in the public health community."

Paulson disagreed, however, saying it's time the district takes away masks.

Board member Jennifer Benson agreed, saying that parents who spoke at the meeting were correct in saying the state has no laws that require quarantine for close contact. Without masks, contact tracing is more difficult.

"If not now, when? It feels we're operating in fear instead of based on science," Benson said. "It should be a choice and not a mandate at this time."

As some school districts in North Dakota prepare to do away with masks, Moorhead Area Public Schools sent all 9th graders into quarantine starting Wednesday, April 28, for 10 days after a recent spike in positive COVID-19 cases. Seven students recently tested positive for COVID-19, and another 160 students were already in quarantine, said Dave Lawrence, Moorhead High School principal.

Moorhead students are expected to be back in school buildings by May 3.