The Bismarck Board of Health has denied a request from a parent group to mandate masks in schools, saying it lacks the legal authority to do so.
The board composed of members of the city commission also called on the Bismarck Public School Board to stop telling the public that deciding on a mask mandate is outside the school board's purview.
The board voted unanimously Wednesday afternoon to deny the request from BPS Parent and Community Coalition for COVID-19 Safety in School to require masks in Bismarck Public Schools.
The 250-member coalition sent a letter signed by more than 60 people to the board Sunday asking for it to put a mandate in place.
The Board of Health recommended a citywide mask mandate last year, which the commission later approved. But that mandate is no longer in effect, and the city attorney said it was implemented under a state of emergency that no longer exists.
Commissioner Nancy Guy, who holds the city public health portfolio, said the school board is elected to govern the school district and the city does not "get in their lane." She said she called the Board of Health meeting to make it clear that mask mandates are up to the school board.
"I just wanted to make this abundantly clear that this is not our jurisdiction, we don't have legal authority to do what the school board has been telling parents and families we can do," she said. "So they need to change that tune."
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School board President Jon Lee told the Tribune that the board recognizes the district doesn't operate in isolation but is just one part of the community.
"It has been the school board's stance that viral transmission is a community issue," he said. "If the issue should need to be addressed by a mitigation strategy, it should be addressed by the whole community, not in part."
He also said the board respects that the city commission addresses issues for the whole community, not just in part, and that the board values the commission as community partners.
The coalition wrote Sunday that it has asked the Bismarck Public School Board to adopt COVID-19 mitigation policies consistent with guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics but was told that COVID-19 policies are a community matter.
The district does not have a mask mandate in place this school year, though local public health officials urged BPS to do so given higher case numbers, a low COVID-19 vaccination rate in adolescents and the fact that children under 12 cannot be vaccinated yet. The district also is not requiring close contacts identified by schools to stay home.
Another parent group, People United for Responsible Education, or PURE, sent its own message to the city commission Wednesday asking it to uphold BPS's decision to not require masks. That letter was signed by 465 people, including state Reps. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck, and Jeff Magrum, R-Hazelton, "who firmly believe that medical decisions should be left to the parents and guardians."
City Attorney Jannelle Combs told the Board of Health that there is no authority for the city health officer to mandate masks without a state of emergency being declared. Both the state of North Dakota and the city of Bismarck have ended their states of emergency tied to the coronavirus pandemic. The attorney added she didn't know how the city could impose a mandate on another political entity in a legal way.
She also said the city could not enforce penalties for some children for not wearing a mask because the law says they're too young to understand the consequences of their actions.
Commissioner Greg Zenker said he was frustrated that the meeting had to be called.
"I'm a little agitated," he said. "The uproar that this has caused and the tension that this has caused between the citizens is enormous."
Commissioner Steve Marquardt said he received more emails about the mandate request than he did about the city budget.
The pro-mask parent group said in a statement after the meeting that it knew the Board of Health did not have the authority to mandate masks but needed it said in a public forum because the school board "has been attempting to mislead the concerned parents and community members."
"We fully understand that things don't always go the way we want them to, but we also understand that passing the buck is not acceptable either," the group said.
Lee said that he does not think the board has been trying to mislead anybody but it's obvious its message has been misconstrued.
Reach Sam Nelson at 701-250-8264 or firstname.lastname@example.org.