WEST FARGO — The West Fargo School Board held a special meeting, Wednesday, Sept. 8, to establish benchmarks for COVID-19 policies to be enacted, such as requiring students and staff to wear masks.

Currently, mask wearing is recommended but not required. The district decided on Aug. 8 that it would not require masks at the start of the school year.

Just before school began, the district sent a survey to families asking if they felt the district should follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recommendations of requiring masks. About 65% of families who responded said "no."

"I'm also very much aware if the survey were done today, it would look different," Superintendent Beth Slette said Wednesday. "We have not discussed doing another survey at this time."

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The board passed the mitigation measures Wednesday with a six to one vote, Jessica Jackson voting against the resolution.

The resolution is effective Sept. 9 through May 26, 2022. The resolution said the district can and will take corrective action against "individuals that refuse to comply with expectations associated with the implementation of the strategy."

Parents and families filled the West Fargo School Board room at the Leidal Education Center to offer support and opposition for requiring masks as part of the school district's COVID-19 mitigation plans.

"Masking is not the only solution," District Safety and Communications Director Heather Leas said.

The district offers rapid testing at each building, Leas said, adding 188 rapid tests have been done on site since the start of the school year, and they found nine positives.

The highest positive case rate last year in the district was during the week before Thanksgiving when there were 74 positive cases, Leas said.

The district also added increased opportunities for handwashing and hand sanitizer with regular cleaning of high-touch surfaces and iMod air filtration.

At Wednesday's meeting, the district outlined what would trigger changes to COVID-19 mitigation strategies and what those changes would be.

For kindergarten through fifth grade, if two positive cases are found in a classroom and the department of health says they are likely related, the district would complete contact tracing and then require masks for all those still in the classroom for 14 calendar days.

If a third case is identified in an elementary classroom and the department of health determines the cases are related, the district would consider moving the classroom to distance learning for 10 days.

"Our thought as an administrative team is that it is better to mask and see if that temporary measure stops the spread than having to go straight to the distance learning model," Leas said.

The positive cases in question would include teachers. If the department of health decides the cases are not related, it would not trigger the district protocols.

The district will begin contact tracing once a second positive case, linked to the first case through school-based spread, is identified in a classroom. A close contact is any individual who was closer than 6 feet for longer than 15 minutes in a day.

Vaccinated individuals who are close contacts will not have to quarantine unless symptomatic. Unvaccinated, unmasked individuals identified as close contacts have the option of rapid testing every other day for seven days in order to continue coming to school without restrictions. They must always receive a negative result and never display symptoms.

If 4% of the total school and staff population is identified as an active positive case, the district will require everyone to start masking. If it rises to 5%, the district will consider moving a grade level or the entire building to distance learning for at least 10 calendar days.

The percentages are based on the state's Return to Learn recommendations.

Leas said if the district must require masking, there will be exceptions as established by the CDC such as those who cannot wear a mask due to a disability or if a mask would create a risk to health, safety or job duty and individuals in certain situations such as a swimmer who cannot wear a mask.

Parents and staff members of the West Fargo School District spoke for and against masking requirements at a special meeting of the school board called Wednesday Sept. 8. Wendy Reuer/PioneerForum
Parents and staff members of the West Fargo School District spoke for and against masking requirements at a special meeting of the school board called Wednesday Sept. 8. Wendy Reuer/PioneerForum

Elementary Education Assistant Superintendent Rachael Agre said parents can email their students' teachers and let them know if they want their child to be diligent about mask-wearing. She said teachers also started to pod masked and unmasked students together.

Secondary Education Assistant Superintendent Vincent Williams said they are not requiring teachers to enforce masking even if a parent reaches out to them.

Along with parents, two students spoke about masks at Wednesday's meeting.

Ava Vandyke, an elementary school-aged child, spoke before the board and room full of parents and staff.

"I want to talk about masks, and I thought you should know that masks, they make me feel dizzy after I wear them and they sometimes give me headaches," Vandyke said. "They upset me, and I feel like school children like me should have a choice and their parents should have a choice to wear masks or not wear masks. "

Her mother, Jessi Vandyke, commended the board for stepping into their roles and leaving the option up to families so far.

Parents, students and educators crowd the West Fargo School Board's room at Leidal Education Center for a special meeting on COVID-19 mitigation protocols Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021.
Ryan Longnecker / WDAY
Parents, students and educators crowd the West Fargo School Board's room at Leidal Education Center for a special meeting on COVID-19 mitigation protocols Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021. Ryan Longnecker / WDAY

Kaden Armstrong, a junior at Sheyenne High School, had a different opinion.

"Even though I'm fully vaccinated, I wear a mask every day to protect others," Armstrong said. "For some reason, wearing a mask has become political. There is a reason every high school event has a chaperone: because personal responsibility has not been established."

Slette said she receives coronavirus-related information from health care officials, and it is examined each day. District information is posted on the district website twice a week. She said slightly higher than 20% of the positive cases in North Dakota with COVID-19 were those under 18, including one child under age 5 who was in the ICU.

Dr. Chris Pribula, a Sanford hospitalist who helped set up the coronavirus response team in the Fargo-Moorhead area, is a parent of two middle school students in the district. He asked the district at Wednesday's meeting to pass its mitigation strategies.

"I spent the last 18 months on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, and I personally saw the effects this virus has on our families," he said. The delta variant is highly contagious and worse than other variants, he said.

As of Wednesday, there were 33 people in the Sanford COVID-19 ward of the Fargo hospital, he added, and that number is rising.

A crowd overflows into the hallway at Leidal Education Center in West Fargo during a West Fargo School Board meeting to establish thresholds for adding COVID-19 mitigation protocols Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021. 
Ryan Longnecker / WDAY
A crowd overflows into the hallway at Leidal Education Center in West Fargo during a West Fargo School Board meeting to establish thresholds for adding COVID-19 mitigation protocols Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021. Ryan Longnecker / WDAY

Parent Ashley Muscha asked the board to consider a universal masking policy for the district. She said the board should be proactive instead of reactive, and the policy of only recommending masks goes against "universal science."

Amy Kemper, who spoke while masked, said she has an elementary student, and she was concerned about COVID-19, along with the physical and mental health of students and staff. She said she is concerned teachers will feel unheard by the district and may leave the profession due to current policies.

"I'm here in favor of keeping the mask optional for our kids," Shannon Heick said. She said she found studies in relation to masks that are not positive. She claimed that Fargo schools had 36 cases of the coronavirus as of Friday while West Fargo reported 30, a sign that mask requirements may not work.

"I caution our board — next week there might be more cases," Slette said "We don't know what will happen."

Pribula said he read the same studies others cited at the meeting and they "are very misleading." He offered to stay after the meeting and discuss those studies further.

"I've read every single email that has been sent to me, and there have been many on both sides of the issue," Slette said.

Board member Patti Stedman asked officials at what point they would perhaps return to the board and say the mitigation plans are not enough.

Slette said that was a difficult question to answer. The board would likely have to have another special meeting.