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Parents angry after Pine Island School Board OKs mask mandate

On a 5-2 vote, the School Board mandated masks for all grades through the first quarter of the school year.

Shaw Family Pine Island.JPG
Ericka Shaw stands with her three children, from left, Bennett, Eva and Jace, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in Pine Island. Shaw said despite the mask mandate passed by the Pine Island school board Monday, she will not force her children to wear masks to school when the school year begins. Brian Todd / Post Bulletin
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PINE ISLAND — When Ericka Shaw's children show up for school on Sept. 3, they will not be wearing masks.

She's OK with the fact that they will be violating the rules set down by the Pine Island School Board on Monday.

"If the school is going to send away kids who do not feel comfortable wearing a mask, that's wrong," she said.

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Shaw has three children. Her oldest, Jace, will be going into the fourth grade this year. Last year, he had trouble with his glasses fogging up while wearing a mask, and with his individualized education plan for speech.
"If they're turned away, I will support my kids' decision 100%," Shaw said.

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She's not alone.

Like Shaw, Jennifer Moen sent an email to Superintendent Tamara Champa saying her children will not wear masks to school.

Moen has three school-age children. Her 4-year-old daughter has said she doesn't want to wear a mask and doesn't want to go to school if she'll be forced to do so. Moen's 8-year-old daughter feels the same way.

"She said she was so excited for school this year, but isn’t anymore if she has to wear a mask," she said.

Moen added that her 16-year-old son likes to avoid confrontation, so will likely wear a mask to go to school.

"I was surprised to see the Pine Island School District mandate masks, because other small towns surrounding Rochester were letting the parents decide what is best for their children," she said.

The two women are among the 270-plus individuals who have joined the Pine Island Parents Strong Facebook page, which was created after Monday's meeting. As of Thursday night, 250 residents of Pine Island — some of them students — have signed an online petition against the mask mandate.

Setting a mandate

The School Board spent nearly an hour discussing the mandate Monday night, eventually voting 5-2 in favor, with board members Ted Morrison and Ron Peterson-Rucker voting against. As approved, all students and staff will be required to wear masks inside the district buildings when the school year begins.

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Board member Emily Miller said she was upset that her children will likely be bullied by parents who are against masking once the school year begins, but she believes masks will protect the student body. She also told parents if they're upset, they can take their children elsewhere.

"We are a business. We provide a service," she said. "If you don’t like Target, you go to Walmart. If you don’t like Menards, you go to Fleet Farm. If you don’t like the rules and the policies we set in place, you have the freedom to go elsewhere."

While the district set a mask mandate for the first quarter — and the board promised to review that decision at each board meeting through the quarter — the district's child care program does not require masks and will not until the beginning of the school year, Champa said.

Tammy Champa
Tammy Champa

She added that the board had information on the recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Minnesota Department of Health, and those recommendations, for now, are to mask indoors in public buildings, including schools.

Champa said if parents decide to take their children out of the district — either through open enrollment to other districts or by home-schooling — she will miss those kids.

"I believe we provide an incredible education here," she said. "But it saddens me that they wouldn’t be here."

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Champa said there will likely be exceptions for students with an IEP where a mask might hinder learning, and she planned to meet with the special education coordinator to hammer out those details. She also said she doesn't know, legally, what the response will be if students show up without masks, but that the district mandate will be enforced.

"This is a challenge to make sure everyone feels their concerns are being heard and their needs are being met," she said.

More discussion Monday

To hammer out some of the details not clear Monday, the School Board will meet this coming Monday at 6 p.m. Items on the agenda include an overview of the requirement for masks, the parameters of the requirement, a timeline for review, what exceptions might exist, and any alternatives and the protocol for those who refuse to mask their kids.

What is not on the agenda is more public comment.

That doesn't mean parents don't plan to speak out. The Facebook group is organizing a meeting at 5:30 p.m. outside the high school before the School Board meeting begins.

"We want it to be a choice," said Mike Brown, a parent in the district. "Let the parents decide. Nobody's arguing that."

Like Moen, Brown said he was surprised by the decision, since most of the districts surrounding Rochester have set a policy of allowing or even encouraging masks, but not mandating masks. But once Pine Island voted for its mask mandate, he's heard from parents who are looking to start a home-schooling group.

"I understand the other side," Shaw said. "If you feel safer with a mask, then wear one. But when it comes to my two youngest, putting them in a mask for seven hours a day seems ridiculous. When they're together, they're touching each other all day. And if they wear a mask and they've got a cold, that's what they're breathing in all day."

Brian Todd is the news editor at the Post Bulletin. When not at work, he spends time with his family, roots for the Houston Astros and watches his miniature dachshund sleep, which is why that dog is more bratwurst than hotdog. Readers can reach Brian at 507-285-7715 or btodd@postbulletin.com.
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