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The Minnetonka School Board will consider removing the mask mandate at the middle school level during a meeting in January.

The school board discusses the district's Safe Learning Plan monthly but has been reluctant to set metrics for when it would remove the mask requirement for middle and elementary schools due to rising COVID case numbers, despite calls from some parents to do so.

Related [Nov. 18]: Minnetonka elementary school reports 60 active COVID cases among students

But at its meeting on Thursday, Dec. 2, the board decided when it reviews the plan next month, it will possibly amend it to remove the mask requirement at Minnetonka Middle School East and Minnetonka Middle School West, citing increasing vaccination rates among students, even though COVID rates have been surging statewide.

The board decided to only "strongly recommend" people wear masks at the high school because more than 70% of students were fully vaccinated, even though school district authorities have acknowledged that the lack of a mask mandate at the high school level has led to an increase in student quarantines (more on that below).

If middle school families continue to vaccinate their kids as they have been, the district expects vaccination rates to top 70% in middle schools in the next few weeks. 

Here are the vaccination rates at each level, per Health Services Director Annie Lumbar Bendson:

  • 75.8% of high school students are fully vaccinated; 2.9% have had one of two doses
  • 57.4% of Minnetonka Middle School East students are fully vaccinated; 14.9% have one of two doses
  • 52.9% of Minnetonka Middle School West students are fully vaccinated; 12.9% have one of two doses
  • 4.3% of elementary school students are fully vaccinated; 53.5% have one of two doses
  • 47.6% of all Minnetonka students districtwide are fully vaccinated

The board thanked Minnetonka parents for getting their children vaccinated, acknowledging vaccination rates among students is much higher than a month ago and much higher than the district anticipated. 

The uptake of vaccines among families has allowed the board to consider removing the mask requirement, board members said.

Cases recently spiked in Minnetonka

Minnetonka schools superintendent Dennis Peterson during the meeting said staff and families have done a good job at staying home when they're sick or showing signs of COVID-19 and he claims that the school's ventilation system is keeping cases at bay.

"I hear once in a while that we don't know what the real secret sauce is — we do know what the secret sauce is. It's our ventilation system. We don't let those COVID bacteria even get into the nostrils of people in our schools. So that's what's making a difference when they're at school," Peterson said.

The superintendent, who was criticized last year for comparing COVID-19 to the flu, also claims that COVID-19 is rarely being spread among students when they are at school. 

"Very rarely can we say with any certainty that someone passed COVID at school. In fact, almost never is it 100% sure," Peterson said. "Often people try to reconstruct the possibilities forget that they did something that maybe was the exposure."

The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) cannot comment about whether students and staff are catching COVID-19 at a specific school but MDH spokesperson Erin McHenry told Bring Me The News they're "continuing to see high rates of community spread around the state and that applies to school settings as well."

As of Wednesday, Dec. 2, there were 111 active COVID-19 cases among Minnetonka students and 11 active cases among staff, according to the district's COVID dashboard. Here's the breakdown by school: 

  • 18 students and zero staff at Minnetonka High School
  • 16 students and zero staff at Minnetonka Middle School West
  • Six students and one staff at Minnetonka Middle School East
  • 66 elementary school students and seven elementary staff
  • Five Minnetonka Community Education Center students and three staff

A total of 587 Minnetonka students and 62 staff had recovered from COVID this school year, and 279 students and 10 staff are quarantining per Minnesota Department of Health guidelines.

The district is coming down from a multi-week surge where active cases topped neared 200 among its 10,896 students, however Lumbar Bendson said it's unclear if Thanksgiving break would make case numbers rise or if they'll continue their decline. 

Number of active COVID-19 cases in Minnetonka schools over time. 

Number of active COVID-19 cases in Minnetonka schools over time. 

The majority of cases in middle and high school kids have involved unvaccinated students and the 0- to 19-year-old age group represents the age group with the fastest growing rate of cases in Minnesota, Lumbar Bendson said. 

She also noted that if there is a person who tests positive for COVID-19 in a family, the "majority" of family members end up testing positive, regardless of vaccination status.

This school year "is more difficult" compared to last year in terms of COVID-19 cases in kids, she added. In November, Minnetonka schools hit a pandemic-high 199 active cases in a week. 

The district's highest weekly active case count in the 2020-21 school year was 40. 

This is a trend seen statewide as well among school age kids:

There is a two-week lag on the statewide school data, so the most recent orange bars are "not as high as they probably will be," Health Services Director Annie Lumbar Bendson said. 

There is a two-week lag on the statewide school data, so the most recent orange bars are "not as high as they probably will be," Health Services Director Annie Lumbar Bendson said. 

Statewide, McHenry told BMTN on Dec. 3 that over the last week, MDH received more than 6,400 reports of positive cases from schools and it has tracked more than 700 outbreaks (three or more cases from different households who attended school during their infectious period) since mid-August — about 400 schools have reported 20 or more cases; more than 170 schools have reported 40 or more cases; and 10 schools have reported 100 or more cases in students who were in school buildings while they were contagious.

"These cases are not necessarily linked to each other or imply transmission is happening at school but do indicate there is increased potential for transmission to be occurring in the school setting," McHenry said. 

Weekly statewide school COVID-19 data can be found in MDH's weekly report on page 30. Here's the link

MDH encourages school-aged children and school staff to wear a mask, get tested for COVID-19 regularly, get the COVID-19 vaccine and booster (if eligible), stay home if they're sick, follow quarantine guidance if exposed and wash their hands frequently. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevent also recommends people of all ages — regardless of vaccination status — wear masks when their inside public places in communities with "substantial" or "high" levels of community transmission, which includes every single county in Minnesota (and most counties in the United States). 

Students in quarantine could rise

The school board said the goal of the district's Safe Learning Plan is to keep kids in school learning, with Board Chair Chris Vitale acknowledging during the meeting that they've done a good job with that.

The Safe Learning Plan requires "close contacts" of someone who tests positive for COVID-19 in a school setting to quarantine unless they are fully vaccinated or have recently recovered from COVID-19. For the most part, students and staff in middle and elementary schools do not have to quarantine due to the mask requirement.

Lumbar Bendson says because the high school does not have a mask requirement, some students have had to quarantine multiple times this school year.

Peterson acknowledged this too, saying there are not "many" COVID cases among high school students but there is a rise in the quarantining due to the school not having a mask requirement.

A graph of active COVID-19 cases, as well as those who have recovered and those in quarantine due to COVID exposure. 

A graph of active COVID-19 cases, as well as those who have recovered and those in quarantine due to COVID exposure. 

The school board acknowledged that if the middle school mask requirement is removed, the number of students who will miss school due to having to quarantine may go up. 

Board to consider omicron variant in decision

Superintendent Peterson informed families of the board's plan in an email to the school community on Friday, Dec. 3, saying "We have much to learn between now and January. We do not know what the omicron variant will bring. We do not know if our COVID numbers will spike after winter break. And, we do not know whether the ‘fully vaccinated’ rates will rise to where we expect them to rise.

"However, I do feel that our situation is encouraging, and I appreciate how seriously our families and staff have taken safety precautions throughout the pandemic, which helps us keep kids in school," he added. 

During the meeting, school board members listed several things they plan to consider when deciding whether to amend the Safe Learning Plan to remove the mask requirement for middle schools, including how the new omicron variant may impact case rates. Lumbar Bendson says public health officials and scientists are still working to determine if the variant is more contagious, if it causes more serious illness and how it responds to the vaccine.

Peterson and school board members said other things they'll consider when making their decision include: looking at COVID data from Minnetonka High School, where masks are not required for the roughly 3,200 students; case rates after Thanksgiving break (data wasn't available at the Dec. 2 meeting); vaccination rates among middle school students; and what social distancing looks like in middle schools compared to high schools and how that could impact transmission. 

Putting it on the calendar to discuss the mask requirement shows the community the school board is listening, members said. 

A group of parents continues to demand the mask requirement be removed at all Minnetonka schools. On Dec. 2, 10 people spoke during the community comments portion of the meeting, with the majority asking the board to change the Safe Learning Plan to allow for "mask choice" for all students. 

All 10 people, in one way or another, criticized the board and district for its handling of the pandemic and the Safe Learning Plan, with most saying it goes too far.

School board members did say that due to vaccines only recently being approved for kids ages 5-11, removing the mask requirement in elementary schools would likely have to wait until vaccination rates are higher, like in the 70% range. 

The school board's January meeting is currently scheduled for Jan. 6, 2022. 

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