WEST FARGO — When Andrew Tyson learned that the West Fargo School District was not going to mandate masks in classrooms, he explored how he could transfer his children to Fargo's public schools where masks are required.
Divorced, he turned to the mother of their two children, ages 6 and 9, and her husband who live in Fargo. Tyson managed to transfer his two kids because he could register them for school at their mom's Fargo address. But other families looking to switch districts over the mask issue, whether pro-mask or anti-mask, have not all had the same luck as Tyson.
“We are one of the lucky families who transferred, but there are still nearly 12,000 kids in West Fargo schools,” said Tyson, a registered nurse. “To not wear a mask in any school in our country is irresponsible. It’s rolling the dice with our children’s lives."
With strong opinions on both sides of the mask issue, Fargo and West Fargo school districts report that families have been trying to transfer children into their respective districts, but officials say such transfers are not possible because the open enrollment deadline passed six months ago.
“The only way an open enrollment request would be contemplated at this time would be if a family moved residences and wished to remain in their former district or due to a bullying situation (per state law),” Fargo Public Schools spokeswoman AnnMarie Campbell wrote in an email.
The Fargo School Board voted 6-3 last month to follow guidance from local and national health agencies and mandate masks in schools for the 2021-2022 school year.
The Moorhead School Board passed a similar mandate a week before classes began. (Minnesota does not have a cross-state option with North Dakota for student open enrollment, said Moorhead schools spokeswoman Brenda Richman.)
In West Fargo, masks are recommended, but not required. “While it is accurate that we have had families call to inquire about transferring districts, it isn’t as simple as them just requesting,” said Heather Leas, a spokeswoman for West Fargo Public Schools.
The issue of mandating masks in schools and elsewhere during the coronavirus pandemic has sparked controversy across the nation. The frustration of Tyson and other parents — for and against masks in schools — has intensified as parents and concerned citizens sound off at local school board meetings.
This all comes as North Dakota sees a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases. Hospital officials have warned that the surge could overwhelm the state's health care system if more residents don't buy into vaccination, mask-wearing and social distancing.
On Friday, Sept. 3, Fargo Cass Public Health reported that in a week North Dakota hospitalizations spiked 154% and positive cases jumped 19%. Additionally, the virus' delta variant that's circulating is twice as contagious as other variants and the COVID-19 case rate for children has increased sevenfold, said Holly Scott, a spokeswoman for Fargo Cass Public Health.
North Dakota health officials reported 445 new positive cases on Friday, with a total of 2,908 active positive cases.
The state’s worsening infection statistics are what Tyson feared. He's paid attention to the toll the coronavirus has taken on southern states when schools reopened, and decided to act.
“I think every parent concerned about this issue, on both sides, knows rage and fear and indignation. We all want a safe space for our kids to go to school,” he said.
Tyson understands that masks are uncomfortable, can cause social isolation, anxiety, even panic.
“Those are real things, but they’re not hospitalization,” Tyson said. “I think there's an opportunity here for everyone involved to connect and find solutions to the problems COVID is throwing at us, the way the whole world did back when this all started. Remember the sidewalk chalk and construction paper hearts that sang of solidarity and hope? I miss those days."