Jan. 11—The Anoka-Hennepin school district will continue to require face masks for grades 6 and under, sticking with protocols that officials previously announced would come to an end next week.
David Law, superintendent for the state's largest school district, said last month that starting Jan. 18, masks would be required in individual classrooms or schools only if new cases of COVID-19 reached elevated levels.
However, Law told the school board Monday that case numbers are not as reliable as he'd hoped they would be. In recent weeks, growth in the numbers of staff and student absences have far outpaced rising case counts — perhaps because positive tests taken at home are going unreported.
"Our school (case-count) numbers don't seem to be an accurate reflection of what's happening in our schools," he said.
For now, the district will continue to tie its K-6 mask mandate to county-level case rates, which are well above the threshold the district has used all school year to trigger the mandate.
With the more contagious omicron variant taking over and case numbers soaring, Law noted that many surrounding districts are taking more precautions — reinstituting mask mandates or temporarily closing schools because of staffing shortages.
"We would be on an island if, at a time when we can't staff, absences are climbing, and other schools are closing or adding masks, that we move in the other direction," he said.
Anoka-Hennepin recently had 404 teachers and 6,606 students — about 17 percent of enrollment — absent on a single day.
The district's reversal on the mask mandate was Law's decision and did not require a board vote Monday. However, newly elected board member Matt Audette's motion to stop requiring masks was rejected 5-1. Audette called the mandate an example of government overreach, especially now that young children can be vaccinated against the coronavirus.
His comments were cheered by a boardroom crowd, some of whom spoke against masks earlier in the meeting.
Board member Erin Heers-McArdle said she hears from many constituents who support masks but don't attend meetings because they're intimidated by opponents.
Law said the following districts temporarily have moved some or all of their schools to distance learning for various reasons: Minneapolis, Osseo, Minnetonka, Robbinsdale, Forest Lake, Fridley and St. Anthony-New Brighton.
Richfield, Prior Lake and Farmington are closing school buildings for several days, too.
In St. Paul Public Schools, where buildings remain open, the teachers union on Tuesday urged the superintendent to deliver better masks to staff and students, communicate the circumstances that could lead to a shift to distance learning, continue contact tracing, and maintain a 10-day quarantine for coronavirus-infected people rather than following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's new five-day guideline.