FARGO — Despite unrelenting motions and discussion points from Fargo School Board member Jennifer Benson to immediately end mask requirements in schools, the board voted 6-3 in a video-only meeting to delay any decision until its Sept. 28 meeting.
It was also decided to further discuss the issue and gather more data at the board's "work session" next Tuesday, Sept. 21, when they could start to gather more information on how the mask requirement is working and what policies might be if it's lifted.
Students and staff are currently required to wear masks in school as approved at the board's Aug. 10 meeting based on recommendations from Fargo Cass Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Benson kept comparing the "universal masking" in Fargo to the West Fargo school district where there is only a recommendation. She also claimed that COVID-19 numbers are lower in the neighboring district, though she didn't provide any exact numbers.
At a later point in the more than hourlong discussion, pediatrician Dr. Tracie Newman said she believed West Fargo's COVID-19 plan was "reactionary in nature."
"It's not preventative," she said.
Newman, who is also FCPH's health officer, said removing the mask requirement would be a "step backwards and against recommendations of every major medical association."
Benson also repeatedly referenced a conference call last week between board members and State Superintendent of Schools Kirsten Baesler. Benson said Baesler praised the West Fargo district and how they worked directly with their communities, especially through a parent survey.
Benson said Fargo should have also done a survey, which she said Baesler "highly encouraged."
Board member David Paulson also said he felt the board "wasn't listening to the public."
However, Board President Rebecca Knutson and board member Brian Nelson both emphasized they were indeed "listening to both sides" and have had numerous conversations with supporters and detractors of the mask requirement.
The two, along with board member Jim Johnson, also said they welcomed the discussion brought up by Benson but said they wanted more information before making any decision.
Knutson added she had a follow-up call with Baesler where it was made clear that the North Dakota Legislature has left it up to local school boards and cities to make their own decisions on remedies to fighting COVID-19 and the delta variant that has emerged in the state and around the country.
Superintendent Rupak Gandhi said the school board followed a clear process in making its earlier decision on the masking requirement. That process, he said, entailed listening to advice from public health officials as well as conducting contact tracing, quarantining and testing in its plan to fight the disease.
Benson made one last attempt at the end of the discussion on another motion to end the "mask mandate immediately," but couldn't get a second.
She asked the board what they wanted to hear and said she would stay at the meeting until "midnight if I have to" to provide information.
Voting to wait until the next meeting for any decision on masking were Knutson, Johnson, Nelson, Robin Nelson, Seth Holden, Nikkie Gullickson. Opposed were Benson, Paulson and Newman. Despite voting against delaying a decision, Newman did not want to lift the requirement.
Knutson noted in the Zoom meeting that the board's governance committee discussed and decided against any further in-person meetings at this point because visitors were ignoring the mask mandate at previous meetings. although the public was allowed to sign up to speak.