Petersburg School Board members discuss COVID mitigation measures at a regular meeting, March 8. (L-R) Jay Lister, Katie Holmlund, Sarah Holmgrain, Megan Litster

Petersburg School Board approved moving to optional masking after students and staff return from Spring Break, March 21. They made the decision at their regular meeting Tuesday night. They also voted to make themselves the decision maker for any future masking at the schools. KFSK’s Angela Denning reports:

Superintendent Erica Kludt-Painter brought the recommendation to relax masking to the board. She said she’s following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control as well as advice from state and local healthcare providers.

“I tend to be more conservative about this–I don’t think that’s any surprise to people out there–so it’s a little hard for me to say it,” said Kludt-Painter, “but I do think it’s time to start moving forward with that.”

Kludt-Painter said there are many factors she’s looked at with the health advisory committee, which is made up of school and medical professionals.  They’ve also been observing other school districts in Southeast that are moving in this direction.

“You know, it’s been trickling cases a little bit along the way and that’s within the school and within the community,” Kludt-Painter said. “The numbers have not leapt up in a huge way, which is really good.”

The school district has eased into loosening mitigation measures. They stopped contact tracing for students and staff in January. In February, they started a system of masking that loosened it when cases were low.

School Board member, Megan Litster, questioned why wait to start optional masking after Spring Break; why not start now?

“I’m a little worried that it opens up the door for additional changes to happen,” Litster said.

Litster has opposed mandatory masking at the schools for months. She said she didn’t want to see it come back in the future.

“We might have another outbreak, that might be what happens,” said Litster. “And I’m not sure even then, masking is the solution at that point in time.”

Kludt-Painter said starting optional masking at Spring Break gives families time to adjust. She said some don’t want masking to go optional.

Some school board members wanted to give staff time to adjust to the change.

“They might want to change their seating chart or reorganize their tables or whatever to allow kids more space,” said Katie Holmlund.

The school board decided that after Spring Break was the best option, including Litster who agreed after listening to others.

Board President Sarah Holmgrain said there is a risk with students not masking after travel but at-home tests should help with that.

“I’m a little concerned about after Spring Break but what I’m hoping is that people continue to just test at home if they’re feeling under the weather or know that they’ve been exposed so that they don’t bring it to school,” Holmgrain said.

The board also decided that they wanted to be the ones to make future masking decisions, not the health advisory committee. School board member, Jay Lister, said he wanted the public to be in the loop as well.

“I think it needs to be a more transparent process on how we go from universal to optional masking,” Lister said. “So, possibly have the board make those decision when we switch from one to the other rather than in a meeting that we don’t really know how in the heck they come to that decision. And that gives the public—they all feel so strongly about it—the chance to come hear why the decision [is made] and put their input in.”

Kludt-Painter said requiring masking earlier this year has allowed students to continue to participate in sporting events while some schools had to cancel activities because of high case numbers.

“I do think that the measured approach has been important and is worthwhile,” Kludt-Painter said. “So, I think we’re looking to make that next step.”

The district will still promote vaccinations, according to state and federal recommendations. Kludt-Painter says there has been plenty of time for people to get vaccinated if they want to and those that are seem to be protected at the schools.

“It does seem to be that we have students that if they’re exposed within a class setting, they’re not as likely to end up with a case or if they do end up with cases so far, they’ve been relatively mild and more like a cold,” she said.

Other mitigation measures will stay the same including mandatory 5-day quarantines for positive cases and symptom free schools.

Here is the optional masking policy approved, March 8.