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Voluntary mask policy for new school year praised while public addresses critical race theory at Willmar School Board meeting

The Willmar School Board heard comments from a number of community members Monday. Some were grateful for a policy for the new school year that does not require masks. The masks are recommended. Others said they were opposed to the idea of critical race theory, something school officials said is not included in the district's curriculum.

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Heidi Paulson of Willmar speaks Monday to the Willmar School Board. Paulson praised the school district for not making face masks a requirement in the new school year. She delivered a petition against mask mandates signed by more than 1,000 people. Linda Vanderwerf / West Central Tribune

WILLMARWillmar Public Schools will recommend, but not require, face masks when the school year begins in September.

The masks and critical race theory were on the minds of the more than 60 people who attended the School Board meeting Monday.

The crowd was so large the meeting was moved from the usual meeting space to the auditorium in the Willmar Education and Arts Center.

Nine people signed up to speak to the board. Others applauded after many of the speakers.

Many area school districts are using similar mask policies for the coming school year.

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During the board meeting, the board adopted a plan to provide e-learning lessons for students and assignments for staff members to be completed on days schools are closed due to bad weather.

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Superintendent Jeff Holm also announced the district’s back-to-school plan, which includes the mask recommendations.

The district’s website, willmar.k12.mn.us , has a link to allow people to make comments on the plan, he said.

Several people praised the new mask policy and said they hope it continues through the school year.

Andria Krakow said her daughter was so relieved at the end of the last school year that she cried at the thought of not having to wear a mask anymore.

“I can tell you from personal experience, this is mentally detrimental,” she said. She said she was grateful that the wording of the policy allows her two children to wear a mask if they want, but they don’t have to.

Eight-year-old Cora Paulson, heading into third grade at Kennedy Elementary School, said she missed her friends’ smiles when they were wearing masks and had trouble understanding her teacher.

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“I love going to Willmar schools, and I hope you care about my feelings,” she said. “Thank you for not making us wear masks; I hope it stays that way all year.”

Heidi Paulson, Cora’s mom, presented a petition supporting the new policy. The petition generated 1,037 signatures in a week.

Paulson read some comments from the petition.

One signer wrote, “As a teacher I see firsthand the negative effect on mental health and academics.”

A parent wrote, ”Kids in public schools should be able to breathe freely.”

Other speakers Monday focused on critical race theory and other issues.

Critical race theory originated in higher education. According to Reuters, the theory asserts that racism is woven into the U.S. legal system and ingrained in its primary institutions. The Reuters article also reports that the theory is not taught in U.S. high schools.

In her report during the board meeting, Director of Teaching and Learning Carrie Thomas said in a report on the state’s proposed new social studies standards that the theory, sometimes studied in law and graduate schools, is not part of the standards.

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After the meeting, she said critical race theory is not part of the district’s curriculum. She has received questions about it, “but I have not had a specific complaint.” She said any specific complaint would be investigated.

In addition to critical race theory, April Peterson spoke about how schools handle transgender students. She said she believed transgender boys or girls should not be using boys or girls locker rooms or participating in sports.

“To students with questions about your gender, I’m sorry you have this cross to bear; you are loved,” she said. “To students forced to share gender-specific spaces with individual of the opposite sex, your privacy rights must be protected.”

Those who spoke against critical race theory said they feel the theory is racist and is hiding in schools.

Paul Hoffer thanked the board, administration and teachers for what they do, but he said he is concerned about the teaching of critical race theory, which he called “rewriting history books.” He said the theory is racist and teaches children that their ethnic background makes them racist or oppressed.

Shelley Hedlund, Esther Skoglund, Karl Kaufman and Wendell Nash also spoke against the theory. Several also spoke against requiring masks, which the school district is no longer doing.

Nash said the theory has increasingly become a default ideology in many public institutions and goes under euphemisms like equity, social justice and diversity.

Kaufman said he, too, was concerned that critical race theory could find its way into school curriculum wearing a “mask.” He urged the administration and teachers to be on watch.

The country has had a history of racism, Hedlund said, but “I believe institutional racism is not as big an issue as it used to be.” Critical race theory labels people as victims and oppressors, she said.

Skoglund said she feels critical race theory has the ability to be divisive and partisan.

“I think we can learn today from the Olympians,” she said. “They embraced each other’s differences; they celebrated them. Let’s do that. Let’s rise up and celebrate our differences and our strengths in this school.”

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More than 60 people attended the Willmar School Board meeting Monday in the Willmar Education and Arts Center auditorium. Some were there to praise a new mask policy, and others were there to criticize critical race theory, which school officials say is not part of their curriculum. Linda Vanderwerf / West Central Tribune

Related Topics: EDUCATIONMINNESOTAWILLMAR
In 42 years in the newspaper industry, Linda Vanderwerf has worked at several daily newspapers in Minnesota, including the Mesabi Daily News, now called the Mesabi Tribune in Virginia. Previously, she worked for the Las Cruces Sun-News in New Mexico and the Rapid City Journal in the Black Hills of South Dakota. She has been a reporter at the West Central Tribune for nearly 27 years.

Vanderwerf can be reached at email: lvanderwerf@wctrib.com or phone 320-214-4340
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