Duluth Public Schools will require masks during the 2021-2022 school year, Superintendent John Magas announced at a school board meeting Tuesday, Aug. 24.

As part of ISD 709’s Safe Learning Plan, all people age 2 and older will be required to wear face masks in district buildings. In addition, federal mask regulations mandate masks on all public transportation, including school buses. People who are unable to wear masks due to a medical or mental health condition or other disability are exempt from the requirement.

“We are not health experts, but we are education experts, and we learned during our survey work last year that during distance learning, fewer than 30% of our students reported that they were comfortable with the learning model,” Magas said. “I believe that it’s important for us to support mask wearing so that we can avoid distance learning and we can stay in person five days a week.”

COVID-19 vaccines will not be required, but Magas said the district strongly recommends all staff and eligible students to get vaccinated if they are able. Vaccine clinics for staff, students and their families are being held at Denfeld and East high schools.

All schools will meet in person five days a week for the 2021-2022 school year. Online options for distance learning will be available to high school students through the Academic Excellence Online program.

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Board member Paul Sandholm expressed concern that elementary students would not have the option for distance learning, which may cause students to leave the district. Magas said while that is a possibility, districts in the Twin Cities metro area with larger student bodies reported very few elementary students interested in distance learning options. This leads him to believe the lack of option will not be a major issue in Duluth, where there are fewer students. However, the district has submitted an application for an elementary online learning platform in case the need does arise.

During athletics, activity and physical education class, students will not be required to wear masks. Masks will be required in locker rooms and while spectating at indoor sporting events.

The Safe Learning Plan will permit volunteers back in district buildings. Outside groups can use secondary education buildings in a limited capacity, but elementary buildings will still not be open for outside use unless it is an essential partnership. All people using the buildings must follow the district’s safety guidelines.

Magas stated that the Safe Learning Plan was created with guidance from the District Advisory Committee, which includes local parents, teachers, health professionals and Mayor Emily Larson. Wearing masks in schools is also recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Association of Pediatricians, the Minnesota Department of Health, the Minnesota Medical Association, the Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians, the Minnesota chapter of the Association of Pediatricians and the St. Louis County Health Department.

“We have been following the science on this since last August as a board, so I appreciate you providing those recommendations that came to us,” said Rosie Loeffler-Kemp, board member.

Duluth Public Schools will continue to perform extensive cleaning to facilities, and will provide disposable masks and hand sanitizer.

ISD 709’s contact tracing protocol is based on Minnesota Department of Education guidelines. If a person is in close contact with a COVID-19-positive person but both people were wearing masks, the close contact will not be required to quarantine unless they are symptomatic. A negative medical COVID-19 test will be required to return to school if the person is symptomatic. The policy will apply to all staff, faculty and students, regardless of vaccine status.

Magas said the decision to implement the policies in the Safe Learning Plan are largely based on the increase in COVID-19 cases among children in the state and across the country. A report from the American Academy of Pediatrics reported 1 in 5 COVID-19 cases during the week ending Aug. 19 were children.

“As we’re watching things develop in other states, we want to be thoughtful around what we learn from how things are going and use that to inform some of our decision making as well,” he said.