When Hermantown Elementary School students return to their classrooms Tuesday morning, some might not be wearing face masks.

According to the Hermantown Community Schools COVID-19 preparedness plan, students will be required, due to federal mandate, to wear masks on the bus ride to and from schools. All students and staff at the elementary level are required to wear masks in common areas such as hallways and bathrooms. But once in their classrooms, students are recommended, but not mandated to, wear masks.

"One of the reasons for that decision is, when you're in a classroom in the elementary, you probably spend six hours a day with those students," Superintendent Wayne Whitwam said. "What I was told is that you're basically at close contact whether you wear a mask or not, just because of the sheer amount of time you spend together. So I thought, why don't we not require them to wear their masks when they're in that group."

There are measures within the plan that trigger masking for students. If the community's two-week rolling COVID-19 cases surpass 25 cases per 10,000 residents, then masks will become mandatory at the elementary school. Currently the community level is at 18.1 and is projected to increase to 19 within the next week.

The plan also has reactionary measures if students get sick. If one elementary student becomes ill with COVID-19, students in their classroom will be required to wear masks for 10 days past the exposure. At the middle school level, due to students constantly changing classrooms, if two students per grade get sick, the entire grade will be required to wear masks for 10 days.

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"I know masking has been the biggest thing that everyone seems to focus on, but the truth is that there's a lot more than masking," Whitwam said. "We're running our ventilation systems at 100% so we can circulate an air exchange eight times an hour in a classroom. We've got disinfection strategies in place and we require students to wear masks if they're not feeling well and need to see the nurse."

Contention among parents

The issue of masking has been contentious among parents in the district. Whitwam said he's received letters and emails from parents about the topic daily. At the last school board meeting, the board had received 81 letters in support of optional masking and 27 in favor of a mask mandate.

"Even reporting those numbers like that made it seem like a popularity contest," said Jennifer Ramler, a new Hermantown parent who supports a mask mandate. "It shouldn't be about what the majority think. It should be about what's best for our kids."

Ramler and a few other parents recently started a petition on Change.org to encourage the board to implement a mask mandate. The petition currently has 128 electronic signatures. As the wife of a hospitalist at Essentia and the mother of two children, she said the biggest issue she has with the district's approach is that it's "reactive rather than proactive."

"For example, having the students wear masks after one of them has already become sick. Wearing a mask then won't help as much as you'd like to think," Ramler said. "All those students have already been exposed. It's too late by that point."

The district's decision to not require masks in classrooms pushed parent Helen Caron to move her two elementary and middle school students to another district.

"I have a 10-year-old son with Tourette's syndrome. It is arguably so much harder for him to wear a mask due to his facial tics. And yet even he recognizes the importance of wearing it to protect others and does so," Caron said. "It's not easy to rip your child out of a school system so close to the start of school, but the risks were too high."

Ramler said she's talked with her students about wearing their masks despite others possibly not wearing theirs.

"We've talked about it and about how they can stay strong even if they're one of only five students wearing masks," Ramler said.

Here she might get some help. Whitwam said students in the district's civility club and National Honor Society plan to greet students wearing facemasks on the first day.

"I think that'll help make students feel comfortable," Whitwam said. "We don't want students to look around, not see anyone wearing masks and take theirs off. They are still recommended and encouraged to wear them. So maybe that social aspect of it will help it take off."