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School mask mandates will be up to local districts, not health or education departments

State leaders provided more details Wednesday about guidance for the upcoming school year.

The state's health and education departments will not be issuing a statewide school mask mandate, with that decision instead falling to local school districts.

Education Commissioner Dr. Heather Mueller, in a Wednesday afternoon media conference, said each local school district has the freedom to craft its own masking policy for the upcoming school year. That could include a schoolwide mask mandate for students and teachers.

"But that will not be something that came from the Department of Health (MDH) or the Department of Education," Mueller said of such a requirement.

Related: State health officials urge that all wear face masks, 12+ get COVID vaccinations for upcoming school year

Mueller's comments came just a couple of hours after MDH revealed its guidance for K-12 schools regarding COVID-19 safety for the 2021-22 school year. The state department's suggestions mirror those released by federal health officials Tuesday, made in light of increasing information about the transmissibility of the Delta variant.

"That's exactly how public health is supposed to work," said MDH Infectious Disease Director Kris Ehresmann of the CDC's update guidance. "We're supposed to continue to look at the data and the science and adapt our recommendations appropriately."

In addition to urging everyone 12 and up receive a COVID vaccine, MDH recommends everyone in K-12 schools, whether vaccinated or not, wear face masks while indoors.

MDH's guidance is not a mandate, said Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm. Instead, it represents recommendations to prevent the spread of COVID in K-12 schools starting this fall, supported by science and based on what they know at this point in time. 

School districts and leaders can use this guidance to help them make decisions about their safety protocols, she said.

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A district's policy will also determine what happens if a student refuses to wear a mask, or their family prohibits them from doing so.

"In the end, because it is a local decision, each of our school boards and school leaders will be making the decision about what that looks like for their school communities," Mueller said. "Not only will they be making a decision about masks or not masks, they will also be making the decisions about what that means for students or families who do not want to wear a mask if they have a masking policy."

On Tuesday, Rochester Public Schools became the first in Minnesota to require face masks be worn by students aged up to 11.

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