Bismarck-Burleigh Public Health repeatedly recommended universal masking to Bismarck Public Schools before the academic year began, documents show.
BPS Superintendent Jason Hornbacher said there are no plans for the district to put a mask requirement in place, though he does recommend masks. He referenced community support for the district's reentry plan, which lists masks as recommended.
Letters signed by Public Health Director Renae Moch and City Health Officer Dr. David Pengilly expressed concern for student safety given increased COVID-19 cases in the area, low vaccination rates among adolescents and no vaccine available for children under 12. The two recommended the district follow guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the North Dakota Department of Health, both of which say masking is beneficial.
The North Dakota Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics sent a letter in August to all school administrators in the state asking them to require masks this academic year.
COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in North Dakota have climbed quickly in recent weeks. The state reported 520 new cases on Tuesday, which is the highest reported daily count since the end of last year.
Sticking with the plan
The school district began the year Thursday with masking recommended -- not required -- for students and staff. The school board this summer approved the district's reentry plan, which includes the mask policy. The district also is not requiring people identified by a school official as close contacts of positive cases to quarantine. Close contacts are told to monitor themselves for symptoms of COVID-19. However, those identified by the state Health Department as close contacts should follow the department's quarantine guidance. Hornbacher said parents with questions about being a close contact should reach out to their school nurse.
The district surveyed the community about the reentry plan and received "overwhelming support," Hornbacher said. The survey did not have a specific question about mask requirements.
The public health officials sent all superintendents in Burleigh County a letter on Aug. 10. The department was seeing cases starting to rise and wanted to provide enough time for districts to make a decision, Moch said.
That letter contained information about the delta variant, which is the leading cause for new virus cases in the state. The variant is as contagious as chicken pox and can cause more severe illness than other virus variants. The letter also recommended the districts follow CDC guidance, such as universal masking, physical distancing, cleaning and disinfecting, hand washing and contact tracing.
Hornbacher, referencing a press release from local health care leaders with similar guidance, said the district encourages many of those things, including masking, hand washing and physical distancing.
Public health and Bismarck school officials met after the initial letter, and Moch said the department provided more information about COVID-19 case numbers and again recommended masks. Hornbacher said the district's response was to stick with its reentry plan.
The public health department sent a letter to Bismarck School Board members on Aug. 25, the day before students returned. In it, Pengilly urged board members to require masks in schools and said a surge in COVID-19 cases is expected to last through September.
"With no mask requirements in place, the impacts on the health of students, teachers and staff, could be detrimental in the weeks ahead," he said.
The letter also included information outlining the city health officer's authority in schools. The health officer does not have the authority to institute a mask mandate in schools but can close classrooms and buildings for decontamination of a serious infectious disease, Moch wrote.
She said the public health department requested that information from City Attorney Jannelle Combs after some Bismarck parents asked if the department could implement a mask mandate in schools. The health officer closing classrooms and buildings is "not on the table at the moment," the public health director said.
Post sparks concern
District officials and school board members received an email from Moch a day later expressing concern about a since-deleted Facebook post. The post was written by a parent who had some of her children contract COVID-19. The parent said only the very sick children received a COVID-19 test since the rest of the children had to quarantine with them anyway. When the parent called her children's school to say they were being quarantined, the person who spoke to her said keeping children home when a household member tests positive "is no longer a thing."
Moch wrote in the email that several parents sent her a screenshot of the post and that the advice was concerning. She referenced quarantine guidelines from the state Health Department and urged the district to implement COVID-19 mitigation protocols.
BPS Spokesman Steve Koontz told the Tribune that sending children to school when a household member tests positive is not district policy and that a nursing coordinator followed up with the parent. The district briefed staff on proper COVID-19 attendance policies, he said. Close contacts identified by the state Health Department should follow its quarantine guidance, and children will not be penalized for absences due to isolation or other COVID-19-related reasons, he said.
Moch said the data already shows an increase in COVID-19 cases in school-age children, and that she has heard from about 45 families with concerns about the district's COVID-19 policies. The Aug. 25 letter referenced clusters of cases in four BPS schools. Moch declined to name the schools but said they are elementary schools and high schools.
Hornbacher said that as of Tuesday, half a percent of 13,550 students have tested positive for COVID-19. That's about 70 students. He added that the district plans to use a dashboard for case numbers again this year and hopes to have it up next week. Last year's dashboard tracked weekly case numbers among students and staff.
Moch said she will continue to provide information on COVID-19 data to the district.
"I know it's a tough decision for someone to make, but someone has to make the decision to protect our kiddos," she said.
Reach Sam Nelson at 701-250-8264 or firstname.lastname@example.org.