Amid a packed room Tuesday evening, the Rochester School Board unanimously approved a new mask policy, though it is subject to change.

The district released the mask recommendation shortly before the meeting began.

Although audience members voiced their opinions about mask usage, others used their allotted time to speak about the district's stance on "government speech" and other issues.

Interim Superintendent Kent Pekel repeatedly noted the mask policy could change.

"My recommendation to the board could change in both directions," he said. "This is a fluid situation."

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Rochester Public Schools Interim Superintendent Kent Pekel prepares for a Rochester School Board meeting Tuesday, July 27, 2021, at Rochester Public School's Edison Administration Building in Rochester. Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
Rochester Public Schools Interim Superintendent Kent Pekel prepares for a Rochester School Board meeting Tuesday, July 27, 2021, at Rochester Public School's Edison Administration Building in Rochester. Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

Board members wanted to approve the policy quickly since Longfellow Elementary is set to begin its 45-15 schedule Thursday (a 45-15 schedule means 45 days of classes, followed by 15 days off).

Per the new policy approved by the seven board members:

  • "Students age 12 and older are encouraged but not required to wear face coverings inside Rochester Public Schools (RPS) facilities or on the grounds of those facilities."

  • "Students between 2 and 12 years of age are required to wear face coverings inside RPS facilities. Exceptions to this requirement will be made based upon health status and other factors as outlined in School Board Policy 808. Students between 2 and 12 years of age are not required to wear face coverings when they are outside of school district facilities but on the grounds of those facilities."

  • "Students between 0 and 2 years of age are not required to wear any face coverings in any situation."

  • "Staff and other adults who are authorized to spend time in RPS facilities or on RPS grounds are encouraged but not required to wear face coverings regardless of vaccine status."

Earlier Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an update, recommending that everyone in K-12 schools wear a mask regardless of their vaccination status.

Pekel clarified that the district is not adopting the CDC's policy exactly as it was issued. He said the area's high vaccination rate and low infection rate allow RPS to be less rigid.

The school board meeting was the second this month that generated a lot of interest from the public. On July 13, a large audience attended the meeting, criticizing the district's use of "government speech," its mask policy, and the use of critical race theory, which the district does not teach.

On Tuesday, dozens of people waited outside the building for at least an hour before the meeting. Due to fire code regulations, a number of community members had to listen to the proceedings from the hallway.

Those in attendance spoke on a number of topics, including the district's use of masks. Luke Stevens-Royer briefly spoke in general support of mask usage.

Rev. Luke Stevens-Royer speaks during a Rochester School Board meeting Tuesday, July 27, 2021, at Rochester Public School's Edison Administration Building in Rochester. Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
Rev. Luke Stevens-Royer speaks during a Rochester School Board meeting Tuesday, July 27, 2021, at Rochester Public School's Edison Administration Building in Rochester. Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

"Taking measures to keep others safe should never be equated, in my view, with tyranny," he said. "When we confuse tyranny with reasonable precautions for others' health, we've lost our moral compass."

Another audience member, Karin Charron, expressed her hesitancy about the mask policy, at times referencing her past as a nurse in the medical field.

Karin Charron speaks during a Rochester School Board meeting Tuesday, July 27, 2021, at Rochester Public School's Edison Administration Building in Rochester. Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
Karin Charron speaks during a Rochester School Board meeting Tuesday, July 27, 2021, at Rochester Public School's Edison Administration Building in Rochester. Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

"I'm concerned what's going to happen this fall regarding the mask policy," she said. "Masking children can be harmful. Masks can be contaminated with any matter of pathogens. They prevent communication, social interaction, and can impair language skills. They can cause anxiety, headaches and other symptoms."