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School board changes mask policies at RHS, Ely Elementary

By Sue Sitter - | Apr 17, 2021

The Rugby Public School Board voted April 13 to change the district’s policy requiring masks on school property to recommending masks effective April 16 at 3:30 p.m.

At their regular monthly meeting, the board discussed changing the policy, inviting two members of the public and public health nurse Samantha Wentz to speak about the topic.

Board members Brenda Heilman and Dustin Hager said they had received messages from concerned residents about changing the policy.

“My concern is, where does it end?” Heilman asked about mask mandates. “What’s the trigger that ends this?”

“And how far out is it?” added board member Carlie Johnson.

“How do we in the board balance the communication we received from the district?” Board Chair Dustin Hager asked. “I received 15 messages yesterday, 13 of which were in favor of doing something different with the mask mandate, most removing the mask mandate completely.”

“A small minority of them were in favor of continuing with it as we have but I think the most overwhelming message that I received didn’t come from any of them,” Hager added. “It came from a student who said, ‘I just want to be able to attend graduation. I just want to be able to attend state track. Basketball got their season. We didn’t get a season last year. I don’t want to lose that season again this year.’ To me, that’s more heartfelt from a student who could be impacted by whatever decision we make today.”

“And how do we weigh the safety of our staff and how do we weigh the recommendations of administration and come to some common ground?” Hager added. “I don’t have an answer to that either.”

“I’ve had a lot of calls and text messages about this and we know the Department of Health standpoint is we need to continue wearing masks to mitigate the spread,” Wentz said of COVID.

“Looking back at the school year, there were times when we could have easily thrown our hands up and shut down but we had the masks and we were able to keep going,” Wentz noted. “So many schools around us had to shut down numerous times and we didn’t which was a really good thing. We had a lot of quarantining, but we didn’t have to shut down, which was our main goal, to keep kids in school safely.”

“I think about the kids who lost their sports and graduation last year. Would they have been happy to wear masks last year to get school activities? I think they would,” Wentz added. “Let’s say we did vote on just recommending masks? Are those kids going to wear masks because they want their activities to not be canceled?”

Area resident Dallas Hager noted, “I agree with Brenda (Heilman). When does this end?”

Parent Karleen Blessum asked whether students who had been quarantined had been surveyed to see if they had developed the disease.

“How many kids from this survey that have not been conducted have actually gotten sick from being quarantined because of a close contact?” Blessum asked.

“We have the data at the state level with the percentage of kids that were quarantined actually came up positive. But I don’t have that right now,” Wentz answered.

Board member Kris Blessum said she had heard from parents concerned about contact tracing for positive cases and recommended the district review their policy on the practice.

The board ultimately decided to review contract tracing at a later date.

Board members also heard Business Manager Dawn Hauck share information about a school district in northeastern North Dakota that did away with a mask mandate only to quarantine two classrooms two weeks later.

Board member Shane Livedalen noted, “If I was a senior in high school and I had to wear a mask when I went to school or had to lose out on that I think I would choose a mask. That’s my opinion.”

The motion made by Heilman to change the mandate to a recommendation to wear masks passed, with Johnson, Heilman and Kris Blessum voting “aye” and Livedalen casting a “nay” vote.

In other business, the board listened to a proposal for building improvements at Ely Elementary School and on the Rugby High School campus concession area using federal ESSER funds granted to the district in the wake of the COVID pandemic. Jim Parras of Consolidated Construction, Inc. gave the presentation.

School superintendent Mike McNeff also told the board funds would be used to assist students identified as needing literacy support in the district, which he suggested could be a sign of learning loss due to COVID.

The board also heard updates on two new teachers coming to the district for the 2021-22 school year.

Hauck reported the district’s general fund sat more than $240,000 over last year, with the special reserve and activity funds “tracking well.” Hauck noted the district’s hot lunch fund did not need money transferred from other funds in March and a bond to pay for past construction projects in the district was “tracking well.”

McNeff reported meeting with Peace Garden Special Ed Services Unit in March. He also noted the district had added Dean Herman as a school psychologist, while teacher Allison Schepp had transitioned from teaching third grade to teaching pre-kindergarten special ed.

Mc Neff noted the transportation advisory committee met March 11 to discuss routes, challenges with their size and possible ways to shorten ride times.

Rugby High Principal Jared Blikre said seniors had their annual capstone night April 8. “Twenty-three students presented research projects on topics of their choice,” he said. “We had everything from COVID vaccines to oilfield fracking to the link between online learning and mental health.”

“We had our regional speech championships Saturday,” Blikre added. “We had five students qualify for the state competition in Bismarck on April 24. We also have seven students that will participate in the National Forensics League event that will be held in Mandan on April 19 and that is a national speech qualifier.”

“So kudos to Mrs. Thoreson and the speech kids,” Blikre said, noting music competitions would be held at the school with judges coming to the school in a competition format similar to the speech competition, which was closed to the public. Vocal music competitions would be held April 14 and instrumental competition on Wednesday April 21.

Blikre also shared information about upcoming student testing and the school’s junior-senior prom. Blikre noted eighth graders would be visiting Dakota College at Bottineau April 16 for a health career day. Activities for Rugby High’s FFA chapter were also slated for later in the month.

Ely Elementary Principal Jason Gullickson told the board Ely kindergarten registration sessions were underway. “Our current registration is 16,” he noted. “That’s somewhat misleading because in 2018, we had 21 students and we ended up with 55.”

“State assessment, Measurement of Academic Progress or MAP testing is coming up,” Gullickson said, adding “K-6 is reading and math and we want to get data to check for growth.”

Gullickson said the students would perform a spring concert later in the month.

In other business, the board voted to approve cooperative agreements between Rugby and the Leeds- Maddock area for girls’ golf and the Bottineau-Rugby Braves.

The board also approved a petition to recognize the Rugby Education Association as the district’s negotiating unit for teacher contracts and adopted a list of policies recommended by the North Dakota School Board Association.

The board will hold their next regular meeting May 11 at 7 a.m. in the Rugby High School library.

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