FARGO — The Fargo School Board voted down a motion 7-2 to remove the mask mandate in schools on Tuesday, Sept. 28.
Board members Brian Nelson, Seth Holden, Tracie Newman, Jim Johnson, Robin Nelson, Nikkie Gullickson and Rebecca Knutson voted against the motion, and David Paulson and Jennifer Benson voted in support of the motion that would have made masks a recommendation and not a mandate.
Before the vote, Paulson said he was disturbed when he heard a parent say during the public comment period that their children were not allowed to go to the bathroom because of improper masking, and that such practices were “abusive” if true.
“We’re simply asking that parents be allowed to make the decision for their children,” Paulson said, adding that he wanted to know the threshold for when masks could be recommended and not mandated.
Benson agreed with Paulson saying the board has a duty to recognize the impact that masks have had on children’s ability to learn.
“Every decision we make, it should be about the business of education. We are being heavily lobbied by a public health division whose opinion is a mask mandate,” Benson said.
Johnson challenged the board members who wanted to go against the advice of public health officials to take a good look in the mirror and ask themselves if they were ready to take on that kind of responsibility.
Superintendent Rupak Gandhi reported that during the week of Sept. 24 the district had 25 students test positive for COVID-19, and 77 students were in isolation.
Prior to voting, the school board heard from health officials and concerned parents during the public comment session.
Brenton Nesemeier, a field epidemiologist for the North Dakota Department of Health, said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a report last week saying that masks are effective in schools.
“What they did find was that counties without school mask requirements experienced larger increases in pediatric COVID cases compared to those counties that had mask requirements,” Nesemeier said.
Another CDC study looked at the impact of mask policies in school-related outbreaks, Nesemeier said. The study included 1,020 public schools from July 19 to Aug. 31 and discovered 191 school outbreaks with 8.4% of the outbreaks in schools with early masking requirements; 32.5% in schools with late mask mandates; and 59% of the outbreaks were in schools without mask requirements.
“This just shows that masking in schools does work and it’s important to keep that in mind to keep school open,” Nesemeier said.
Daniel Stanislowski, chief science officer of the Midwest Public Health Coalition, disagreed, saying his studies show that COVID-19 was not dangerous to children. According to its website, the Midwest Public Health Coalition is a North Dakota nonprofit group "dedicated to understanding and disseminating the unbiased truth about COVID-19." The group, however, lacks training in public health.
“Masking children does nothing to protect them as they are already safe. The flu is more dangerous for children,” Stanislowski said.
Desi Fleming, director of Fargo Cass Public Health, said hospitals are near critical capacity and that upward of 90% of people recently intubated due to COVID-19 were unvaccinated.
Childhood COVID-19 cases continue to increase across North Dakota, with about 30% of active cases occurring in children, Fleming said.
“Loosening mitigation strategies at this point of the pandemic would weaken the layers of prevention, increasing risk and ultimately jeopardizing the health of children and staff,” Fleming said.
Kristin Sharbono, a Fargo parent of five children, said her kids are being physically and physiologically hurt by the district’s mask mandate.
“If I don’t fight for our God-given rights and the freedoms that our ancestors fought for … what freedoms will be lost next? There are way too many resemblances to Nazi Germany,” Sharbono said.
Jean Gullicks, a family nurse practitioner from Grand Forks, said she's seen an increase in self-injury and a decrease in test scores in children because of school mitigation strategies.
“Their biggest fear is talking about talking to someone and not being able to breathe with their masks on,” Gullicks said.
Julie Anderson, a parent of two children who attend Fargo Public Schools, said she appreciated the school board taking the public health guidance seriously.
“Keep universal masking, contact tracing. This is a pandemic primarily of the unvaccinated, and none of our elementary students are vaccinated,” Anderson said.