Petersburg School Board held its regular meeting in the Wright Auditorium Sept. 14, 2021 to accommodate a larger than usual crowd. Several people attended to testify on the district’s masking policy. (Photo by Angela Denning/KFSK)

The Petersburg School Board has passed a COVID mitigation plan that loosens masking requirements for students and tightens up travel protocols. The vote came Tuesday night at a regular meeting that was moved to the Wright Auditorium to accommodate a larger crowd. KFSK’s Angela Denning reports on the testimony and discussion that came before the final vote:

About 40 people spread out in the auditorium. Many had signed up to give testimony to the board.

At a recent work session, some disgruntled parents interrupted the board, yelling at them.

But this night, Petersburg Police Chief Jim Kerr gave a warning: “Outbursts and profanity laced statements may also fall under disorderly conduct and will not be tolerated.”

The board first heard from three doctors with the Petersburg Medical Center and the Public Health Nurse. They talked about the challenges with medevacing Petersburg patients because people with COVID are filling up hospitals. They talked about the effectiveness of masking and supported the practice indoors.

Then came about 45 minutes of public testimony, mostly about masking.

Parent Eric Dreisbach, like some others, said masking should be a personal choice. He said that kids are playing together outside of school unmasked anyway.

“We are not here to debate whether masks work or don’t, the point is when large groups of mask-less kids are constantly in close contact outside of school we feel there is no point in requiring the masks in school,” Dreisbach said.

Parent Matt Pawuk asked the board not to follow what any parent was asking for. He said they should only follow guidance from the medical experts—the CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the World Health Organization and others.

“Who am I to give any guidance whatsoever in how the school should go about mitigating a pandemic?” Pawuk said. “If you need a guy to write you a piece of software, I’m your man. But my opinion on preventing the spread of a virus in our school system isn’t worth the price of the paper it’s printed on.”

Some educators testified like 5th grade teacher Gregg Kowalski. He spoke against masking saying it obstructs communication in the classroom.

“Both verbal and non-verbal cues are lost with masks,” said Kowalski. “Masking should be minimal or non-existent and definitely up to the parents.”

But 2nd grade teacher, Michelle Brock, supported masking to prevent distance learning, which she said is nearly impossible for young students to do. She said if masking was optional, it could segregate students.

“I feel that it is going to create a division that could be devastating for relationships for both students and staff,” Brock said.

The board also received over 50 letters and over 200 comments from the public through a survey.

In the end, the board approved a plan that includes following COVID protocols according to risk status. A low risk status or green level would look like a normal school year when no masking and travel testing is necessary. A red or high risk status means there are many community cases or cases are connected to the schools. The board isn’t putting numbers with the risk levels, saying the kind of cases matter more than the amount. In red, masking is required by everyone in the schools at all times. Also in red, students and staff who have traveled can return to school with a negative test result and test again on day 7. Students—but not staff–can choose a 10-day quarantine instead of testing.

The big question for the board to decide involved the yellow or moderate risk status, when there are some cases in the community but not many. This is where the school district has been most of the time during the pandemic.

School Board member, Katie Holmlund, said that part has been a very difficult process.

“It’s heartbreaking on both sides of it but it is even more heartbreaking to try to find middle ground,” said Holmlund. “And try to value everybody’s input and make you feel validated is heartbreaking. Our goal is to keep kids in this building, how do we go about that?”

Most of the board agreed that the priority is keeping kids in school. With a 4 to 1 vote, the board ultimately decided that some masking was required for students. The new moderate risk plan has students masking at times when they cannot be three feet apart. Masking is required for students while moving around, in common areas and classrooms when students and staff cannot be spread out. For staff, masking is universal.

Travel testing for the moderate level is the same as the red level. All visitors will be masked when indoors and classrooms will automatically move to a red status if they have a substitute teacher or a guest speaker.

The plan also gives the superintendent authorization to change the risk status or tighten or loosen rules as necessary in each school with guidance from a newly-formed Health Advisory Committee The committee meets weekly and includes a school board member, a district union representative, the superintendent, school principals, the activity director, the public health nurse, and a representative with the Petersburg Medical Center.

Board member, Megan Litster, put her decision this way.

“My goal is it to be as easy as possible for people to understand and follow,” Litster said. “And give kids the opportunity to be unmasked as much as possible while still compromising on some safety.”

Cheryl File was the only no vote, saying she was against mandatory masking. This was File’s last meeting after nine years volunteering on the board. She is not running for reelection.

The administrators are now working out the operational details for implementing the new plan. It will likely look different in each school. In the elementary, students are in the same classroom most of the time and in the middle and high schools students are moving around more.

Superintendent, Erica Kludt-Painter, said they will use the remainder of the week to plan and will begin the updated masking policy Monday morning.

You can listen to the entire three hour meeting here.

[Editor’s note: this story has been updated to clarify the difference between student and staff masking.]