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Stewartville Public Schools moves to make masks optional as other entities begin requiring them

The district made the change Monday, Jan. 10, 2022, amid a surge in COVID cases around the area. Contrary to Stewartville's decision, other entities are tightening their mask mandates.

COVID-19 classroom school
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STEWARTVILLE — Stewartville Public Schools recently approved a change to its COVID-19 mitigation plan, making masks optional for older students during the upcoming semester rather than requiring them.

The district modified its plan Monday, Jan. 10, after initially adopting it in December. The changes are set to go into affect Jan. 24. Superintendent Belinda Selfors clarified, though, that the board will be reviewing the plan on a monthly basis.

The school board discussed the situation amid a surge in COVID cases around the area. Contrary to Stewartville's decision, other entities are tightening their mask mandates.

During the school board meeting when the decision was made, Selfors spoke about the difficulty in requiring older students to wear masks.

"The procedure is once a student is reminded three times, they're sent home. We've gotten to the point where we're just doing continual reminders otherwise there are some students who wouldn't be in school," Selfors said.

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This will be the first time during the 2021-22 school year that masks will not be mandatory for the older students.

According to the change, mask usage at the middle and high schools will be voluntary. However, if there is an outbreak where 15% or more of a grade level or building has been infected, it may result in a temporary closure.

The elementary students will have to wear masks if the infection rate reaches five students in a classroom or up to 15% of the grade level.

Even though the board will be monitoring the situation, Selfors indicated the district won't be able to switch back to requiring students to wear masks.

"Taking a choice away from a teenager is very challenging," Selfors said.

According to the district's COVID-19 dashboard, there were 62 active cases as of Jan. 13 for an active case rate of 3.03%. That is the highest number and rate the district has recorded for the school year. The previous week, there were 32 active cases for a case rate of 1.56%.

Stewartville's decision came just days before a handful of other local entities began tightening their COVID mitigation policies.

Byron Public Schools Superintendent Mike Neubeck released a notice on Thursday, saying the district would start requiring mask usage from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. as soon as Tuesday, Jan. 18

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Neubeck said the district would re-evaluate the situation Jan. 28.

"School districts and counties across the state have seen a significant increase in positive cases and Byron School District is no different," Neubeck wrote to families.

On an even larger scale, the city of Rochester enacted a mask mandate on Sunday, Jan. 16, to be in effect through the beginning of February.

Jordan Shearer covers K-12 education for the Post Bulletin. A Rochester native, he graduated from Bemidji State University in 2013 before heading out to write for a small newsroom in the boonies of western Nebraska. Bringing things full circle, he returned to Rochester in 2020 just shy of a decade after leaving. Readers can reach Jordan at 507-285-7710 or jshearer@postbulletin.com.
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