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ISD 696 ready to open as coronavirus pandemic continues

School board approves safety plan, hopes for a ‘typical’ school year

Keith Vandervort
Posted 8/25/21

ELY – School board members here are not all comfortable with some of the precautions spelled out in a school reopening plan they approved this week as the 2021-22 school year is set to begin …

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ISD 696 ready to open as coronavirus pandemic continues

School board approves safety plan, hopes for a ‘typical’ school year


ELY – School board members here are not all comfortable with some of the precautions spelled out in a school reopening plan they approved this week as the 2021-22 school year is set to begin during a continuing coronavirus pandemic.
Wearing protective face masks and vaccinations, political footballs across the country as well as in Ely, and distance learning options this year for families who don’t feel safe on the ISD 696 campus were the focus of a lengthy discussion at a school board study session Monday night.
Ultimately, the school board approved a resolution that spells out the administration’s procedures to keep students and staff as safe as possible from COVID-19, using the limited number of recommended requirements set forth by federal and state education and health officials. The goal is to return to normal school operations and programming while giving the administration the ability to make changes as public health conditions dictate.
“We were all hoping to have a more typical operation for the new school year, but things changed this summer, so we have been looking at plans and recommendations,” Superintendent Erik Erie said as he introduced the Safe Learning Reopening Plan 2021-2022.
ISD 696 will not require COVID-19 vaccinations for all those staff and students who are authorized to receive them. ISD 696 will not require students, staff and visitors to wear protective face masks while on campus.
“These were kind of hot-button topics as our Safe School Learning Plan Advisory Council met recently,” Erie said. “We are encouraging vaccinations but not requiring them. Plans are in the works to have local health officials conduct a COVID-19 vaccination clinic on school campus this fall as emergency-use-only authorizations are lifted and younger students are allowed to receive them,” he added.
The Minnesota Departments of Health and Education strongly recommend all students, staff, and visitors wear masks, but masks are not required.
“We acknowledge that recommendation,” Erie said, but quickly added, “but that is subject to change.”
Erie stressed that face mask mandates could be implemented for an individual class, classroom, or one of the school buildings if a positive coronavirus case or multiple cases are reported.
“Face masks are required on all school vehicles per federal rules,” he said. “Everybody who is riding a bus, whether it is to and from school or going to an activity (such as sports competitions) are required to wear a mask at all times.”
School board member Darren Visser voiced his frustration with medical and professional health research that shows both pro-mask and anti-mask recommendations.
“It seems like the medical profession can’t agree on what the best stance is right now,” he said. He wondered what changed in ISD 696 to shift from mask requirements to mask recommendation. “We are now dealing with a Delta variant that is twice as likely to hit kids.”
School board chair Ray Marsnik acknowledged that the protective face mask argument remains controversial.
“I can assure you I get emails on both sides of this issue,” he said. “What I haven’t heard about is what the health risks are of wearing a face mask. I can’t recall hearing about anyone who died from wearing a mask. I realize there is some discomfort. My glasses sometime fog up. Younger kids may develop a rash because their skin may be more sensitive. Realistically, what is the concern?”
Marsnik also wondered what the legal ramifications would be if the school district sidestepped federal and state recommendations.
“If our infection rates go up what legal trouble is possible?” he asked.
Marsnik also wondered about peer pressure.
“How are the students who wear masks going to be treated when they come here?” he asked. “Are they going to be bullied? Will they take their masks off because they are embarrassed to be wearing them?”
Visser voiced his concern for the safety of K-5 students who don’t have the opportunity to get vaccinations at this time, versus the grade 6-12 students who can get the vaccine. “We’re not even comparing apples to apples here,” he said. “It is completely different because of the (vaccine) opportunity for the older kids.”
He continued, “I don’t want to be sitting here discussing how we do grief counseling because one of our young students just passed away from COVID. I’ve been wrestling with this for a while. In digging for more information, I find just as much on one side as I do the other. Even in the medical field, this feels like a political situation. We can’t get clear guidance on what is the best way to go. It is a very uneasy thing for me overall.”
School board member Tom Omerza related that he thought last year the safest place for Ely kids was on the school campus.
“Who knows what went on at home or a friend’s house, or other activities outside the school campus. I still believe, outside of the hospital, that this is the safest place to go for students,” he said.
Omerza stressed the need to maintain a safe place for students.
“We follow the numbers, like last year, from St. Louis County Health,” he said. “We continue to monitor and be proactive.”
Because children under age 12 are not authorized to receive a COVID-19 vaccination, school board member Hollee Coombe wondered if Ely elementary students “are sitting ducks.” She feared an ”explosion” of coronavirus cases coming for the Washington building. “What happens until a vaccination is possible?” she asked.
Visser stressed that with any decisions made on face masks, some parents on either side of the issue will decide to not have their kids in school.
“I, too, have been getting emails from parents on both sides of this issue,” he said. “I hate the idea of losing students. They are either here in school or nothing. There is no alternative (distance learning) option. There will be some student loss no matter what we do. I hear parents say if we do (require) masks they are not sending their kids, and if we don’t require masks they are not sending their kids. These are very unprecedented times.”
Erie said he did not know of any area school districts offering distance learning this school year.
“From Chisholm to ISD 2142, even Duluth, is not offering that. We know that for the majority of students and teachers, distance learning did not work well,” he said. “The message we got from staff is that we don’t want to again try to provide both (in school and distance learning) again this year.”
The Safe Learning Reopening Plan spells out a number of procedures and protocols that will go into effect when school starts on Tuesday, Sept. 7.
Physical distancing, COVID-19 screening and testing, cleaning and maintaining healthy school facilities, handwashing and respiratory etiquette, contact tracing, and coordination with state and local health officials are addressed.
In a special meeting following the study session, the board approved a resolution adopting the plan and authorized the school administration, after consultation with the school board chair and notification to the school board, to implement any public health procedures and protocols during the school year as deemed necessary.
The school district’s reopening plan is available for viewing on the ISD 696 website and Facebook page.

Tanks a lot!

ELY – Lots of heavy lifting was accomplished last week at the $20 million Ely school district building construction and renovation project.
The 60,000-pound propane tank was relocated from the front yard of the school to the southwest corner of the campus. The campus’s former heating plant building is long gone, demolished to make room for a new building linking the Memorial and Washington school buildings.
The campus heating plant was relocated to the back of the Memorial building and the 32,000-gallon propane tank was moved to a more efficient location according to building construction officials.
In a project update presented to Ely school board members this week, Kraus-Anderson project manager Brendan Ward said extensive ledge rock removal was necessary to install the new propane fuel line. He said the new campus heating equipment should be ready to be turned on by mid-September.


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