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Willmar School Board adopts new policy requiring masks in buildings

The Willmar School Board has adopted a policy governing face coverings in its buildings when school opens Sept. 8. Those who balk at the requirement could be subject to discipline.

WILLMAR — The Willmar School Board has adopted a policy requiring masks or shields be worn in schools during the pandemic.

Board member and physician Mary Amon helped answer some questions about mask exemptions.

Face coverings are required inside public buildings and businesses under a state executive order.

Superintendent Jeff Holm told the board Monday the mask policy would be helpful in reopening schools. The Minnesota School Boards Association recommended the policy.

While board policies are commonly reviewed by a committee and considered at two meetings, Holm suggested bypassing that and adopting the policy so it’s in place before school starts Sept. 8.

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Face coverings allow some 6-foot social distancing requirements to be eased, allowing the district to transport more children on buses, Holm said.

The policy requires people to have their noses and mouths covered while in school buildings. Those who are not able to tolerate masks or need to allow people to see their facial expressions and lip movements may wear clear plastic shields.

Employees or students who “fail or refuse” to comply with the requirements could be subject to discipline, according to the policy.

Exemptions may be allowed with a physician’s note.

Amon said there are only a few circumstances that exempt a person from wearing a mask. They include very young children, people with significant developmental conditions and people with facial deformities.

Seeking an exemption for other reasons would require a “significant conversation” from a physician, Amon added.

Board member Tammy Barnes asked how to handle someone who said, “I just can’t do a mask.”

Holm said the administration would first talk with a student or staff member and move on from there, according to district policies.

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Barnes said she was concerned about using discipline policies rather than asking what’s behind the refusal.

“We would begin with a conversation,” Holm said. “We have to hear what they have to say about it.”

Education is important to develop a common understanding of the issue, Amon said.

“Sometimes you just need to be able to get to that consensus that it’s good for everybody,” she said. “I think you’ll be able to handle 98 percent of those problems with just a conversation.”

Board member Michael O’Brien said he was concerned that special education children, especially those with high needs, would not tolerate masks. O’Brien drives a bus transporting high-needs children to other facilities in the region.

“I can tell you right now, there’s going to be issues,” he said.

Holm said he has spoken with bus companies about accommodations that may be needed.

“We’re just going to have to work our way through it,” he said. “We’ve dealt with defiance before, and we’ll have to figure out how to deal with that on a case-by-case basis.”

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Amon suggested parents and guardians could be enlisted to help convince kids to wear masks.

“If they can help the children understand that this keeps them in school as opposed to staying home and ‘I’m your teacher,’ that’s a way to help get the kids to buy in,” she said.

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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