Masks will be required in Fargo's public schools, board decides after contentious debate
The motion for students to wear masks in indoor school settings regardless of vaccination status passed on a vote of 6 to 3.
FARGO — Fargo Public Schools decided on Tuesday, Aug. 10, to follow national and local health department guidance and mandate masks in schools for the 2021-2022 school year.
The motion for students to wear masks in indoor school settings regardless of vaccination status passed the school board on a vote of 6 to 3. Board members Jennifer Benson, Robin Nelson and David Paulson voted against the motion and board members Nikkie Gullickson, Seth Holden, Jim Johnson, Brian Nelson, Tracie Newman and Rebecca Knutson voted in favor.
Before the vote took place, more than 50 people showed up to the board meeting as the district prepared to discuss the potential mandate. Fourteen people spoke to the school board, with some in favor and some against requiring masks in schools.
A Fargo police officer sat in the back of the boardroom, rising once to check on a short outburst from audience members who sat in the lobby.
Knutson, president of the board, repeatedly called for members of the audience to stop “humming and hawing and clapping,” and at one time called a five-minute recess.
The issue of mandating masks was discussed because of an Aug. 3 recommendation from Fargo Cass Public Health that echoed guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to wear masks in indoor settings, Superintendent Rupak Gandhi said.
Cass County is at a substantial risk level for continued spread of the delta variant of the coronavirus, according to the CDC.
Gandhi stressed the importance of not undervaluing recommendations from organizations such as Fargo Cass Public Health, a partner with the school district during the coronavirus pandemic.
Stephen McDonough, a North Dakota pediatrician, said only 20% of children in the state who are eligible to be vaccinated have received their shots.
“It is as contagious as chicken pox,” McDounough said. “If you want your kids on ICUs and ventilators, then don’t take this advice. You have an opportunity here to keep this from coming, but it’s coming. And if they don’t mask up, they’re going to get sick.”
Children are becoming sick with the delta variant and they can spread the virus to others more easily, said Clifford Mauriello, pediatric infectious disease specialist.
Desi Fleming, director of Fargo Cass Public Health, added that the Aug. 3 recommendation has not only been sent to schools, but also to the general public in indoor settings.
“We want to take a preventative approach so we don’t end up back where we started,” Fleming said. “Right now, the public is not responding well to masking.”
Zoltan Majdik has two kids in the Fargo Public School district. He asked the school board to mandate indoor masks until all children have had an opportunity to be vaccinated.
“You’re going to hear a lot about freedom, and about parental choice tonight. But, in the end, what this comes down to is we asked our children to do some really, really hard things to protect us last year, when we were vulnerable, when our parents’ generation was dying. And they did. So for us to now turn around while we are safely vaccinated, and send them into a situation that we know is unsafe, that we know is unpredictable, that we know is perilous, without any protections... or to make a mere recommendation that puts the burden of choice on children, that because of peer pressure will effect absolutely nothing. It's not right," Majdik said.
Mother Lisa Esping and her daughter Ellisyn, 8, stood up to ask for masks to remain a choice for families to make.
“Last year we struggled with my daughter going to school. We could not wait until the end of the year to give her a break from masks,” Lisa said.
“Not being able to breathe in fresh air or not seeing friends or smiles… is what I don’t like about wearing a mask,” said Ellisyn through her mother. Lisa added that her daughter suffers from anxiety because of masks and is seeing a counsellor.
“Because for me it is really hard for me to learn anything with masks on. Please listen to my voice and give my classmates a choice whether or not to wear a mask,” Ellisyn said.
Knutson said she has received more than 100 emails from the public since June, with 82 emails asking the school district to follow local health department recommendations and 48 emails against following guidance.
Moorhead Area Public Schools will recommend its nearly 7,000 students to wear masks when school resumes on Aug. 30, but won’t require them.
Students in West Fargo Public Schools can choose to wear masks when they return to school on Aug. 26. During a school board meeting on Aug. 9, Superintendent Beth Slette said 4,705 parents or family members answered a recent survey, and 1,109 staff members also responded. Of the parents, 63% said the district should not follow the universal masking recommendations in schools, while 37% said they should.
The issue of wearing masks brought in about 25 audience members during the Aug. 9 meeting of the Grand Forks Public School Board, where people spoke for and against the idea of imposing mask mandates for the upcoming school year. Masks are recommended, but not required, in public schools in Grand Forks.