By Laurel Beager
Shouting and other disruptions at the International Falls School Board meeting Monday led to three recesses in the first half hour, and removal of the agenda item on which many had come to speak.
At issue is a mask mandate for all students and staff in all buildings effective with the start of the school year, put in place on a unanimous vote in special session Aug. 3. Exceptions to the mask rule will be made for medical exceptions.
Kids will also be allowed to remove their masks during lunch and snack time and the staff will be allowed to remove their mask’s when other people are not present in their assigned work area.
The meeting drew about 120 people, a standing room only crowd, to the Falls High School library, and the board had received requests from around 25 people to speak on the measure.
Another meeting to allow people to speak on the issue will be scheduled when the district is able to secure adequate law enforcement attendance, said Superintendent Kevin Grover Tuesday morning.
“We were ready to hear them, but we’ve sometimes got to agree to disagree, or they will sway the board, I have no idea, but we have to be civil, and we should be able to do that,” he said, adding that some opposed to the measure were behaving appropriately, and also lost their opportunity to respectfully present their thoughts.
At Monday’s meeting, some people were holding signs saying, “Unmask our children,” and outbursts from the audience prompted board Vice Chair Jen Wendels to call a recess until the audience became more cooperative and compliant with the rules of the meeting. A masked police officer was in attendance during the meeting. Board Chairman Ted Saxton was not present at the library for the meeting but appeared to be listening in on a Zoom call of the meeting.
After board members stepped out of the room, the audience reacted vocally, and when the board returned another 15-minute recess was called, after which Windels said the public forum and board action on agenda item No. 5 – a resolution to adopt health and safety measures for 2021-22 school year – would be removed from the agenda.
No. 5 of the agenda formally, as mandates are required by the Minnesota School Board Association, resolved that all staff, students, and visitors within in ISD 361 buildings, regardless of vaccination status, are required to wear a mask, to follow the strategies of physical distancing when possible, handwashing and respiratory etiquette, cleaning and disinfection, contact tracing, screening testing, and staying home when sick as defined in the “CDC Guidance for COVID-19 Prevention in K-12 Schools.”
It also allows the superintendent, after consultation with the School Board chair and notification to the School Board, to select and implement different health and safety measures for the school district or any specific school buildings without school board action if the superintendent reasonably believes that prompt implementation of different health and safety measures is necessary, and that constraints of time and public health considerations render it impractical to hold a School Board meeting to approve the implementation.
After the items were removed from the agenda, angry audience members left the room.
“Time for a new job school board members,” shouted one audience member.
Others shouted, “Not listening to paying citizens is completely unacceptable,” and “Pull all of your kids from the Falls,” as they left the meeting.
Outside the Falls High School, the group gathered to read their statements and talk about the issue, with some reports of pushing and shoving and increased police presence around the school. Grover said the board could hear chanting outside during the rest of the meeting.
Windels Monday said the board would listen to public comment on the district’s COVID-19 safety measures for the coming school year at a future date, and the board will provide sufficient public notice when public forum be held.
“We need to have it have orderly enough,” she said.
Just before adjournment, Windels said she appreciated hearing from people in the district who support the board’s actions on masks, but also said she appreciated hearing all sides in a respectful manner.
Meanwhile, the board directed Grover to tell coaches their players don’t need to wear masks during practice, or actively participating in the sport, but will during team meetings and when sitting on the bench.
Board member Emily McGonigle said the district would watch COVID-19 numbers locally, and if there’s a rise in positive cases the district would be flexible in making decisions about the masking. She also said the teams should abide by the safety measures in place in other districts when they are there for events.
Windels acknowledged a different opinion, saying exceptions may make for a slippery slope, but emphasized encouraging all safety measures.