Last spring, after schools resumed in-person learning, Veronica Castellanos Vasquez struggled with teaching Spanish lessons to her kindergarteners.
The biggest impediment to the lessons, she said, were the facemasks that both she and the 5- and 6-year-old students were required to wear to prevent the spread of COVID-19. At these ages, children are still developing their speech, and to some it’s challenging even in their native language.
“I teach a second language, so I wish they could see how my mouth is pronouncing the words,” said Vasquez, who teaches at Emerson Spanish Immersion Center in Minneapolis. “With the masks, it’s impossible.”
That’s why she found Minneapolis Public Schools’ decision this week to mandate indoor facemask use for all students and staff in the district, regardless of whether they’ve been vaccinated, demoralizing. At the same time, Vasquez said she understands why her school district is making the new requirement.
“We are here again with the masks because people don’t want to get the vaccine,” she said.
As a wave of new COVID-19 infections from the Delta variant continue, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week issued new masking recommendations for K-12 schools, urging all school and student staff to mask up. But across-the-board indoor masking mandates are unlikely to return.
In July, Governor Tim Walz ended his emergency powers after more than a year. Walz’s office has since said he does not plan to renew his powers, which give him the authority to mandate indoor masking. Without this, decisions on school masking mandates are up to each school district, each charter school, and each private school. And with fall classes set to begin next month, schools are starting to roll out their decisions.
On Thursday, Minneapolis Public Schools followed the new federal guidelines, announcing it would require indoor masking for all staff and students starting Monday, August 9.
Minneapolis School Board Chair Kim Ellison said the district will use reported new infection rates on the citywide level in Minneapolis as the basis for its decisions going forward. The CDC recommends indoor public masking for vaccinated people in areas where infections are averaging 50 new cases per 100,000 people or higher.
“Looking at the numbers, we don’t—and I don’t personally—have a clear understanding of the direction the Delta variant will go in, or any other variants that may appear,” Ellison said. “So this will be something that we will look at and probably make a decision every week on whether to continue or not.”
One thing the district is trying to avoid is mandating remote learning. MPS recently founded a new online-only school for students and families who prefer distance learning. Remote learning, for now, will be limited to this school, Ellison said. The district has no plans to offer dual remote and in-person learning for the same class, although Ellison said it remains a possibility for the future.
“Minneapolis has a huge achievement gap,” Ellison said. “It did not get better; it probably worsened during remote learning.”
To date, children under 12 are not eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. As part of its COVID-19 policy, MPS will be recommending children under 12 get vaccinated once the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and CDC signals they are eligible for the vaccine, Ellison said.
Many school districts still, as of press time, hadn’t said what they will do. These include St. Paul Public Schools and Bloomington Public Schools. Some school districts like Anoka-Hennepin, which is the largest in the state, are choosing to recommend masking instead of mandating it.
Some charter schools have made decisions on the CDC guidelines. Partnership Academy, a Richfield charter school that serves a mostly Latino student population, quickly decided to adopt the CDC recommendations after they were issued.
“With students under 12 currently ineligible for vaccination and the rise of the Delta variant, we believe this is the best way to keep the community safe,” Molly Schwaiger, Partnership Academy’s principal, wrote to Sahan Journal in an email.
Partnership Academy is also following the Minnesota Department of Health’s best practices for COVID-19 prevention for the 2021-2022 school year, which were issued last week. MDH’s recommendations include urging all students and staff aged 12 and older to get vaccinated and enforcing social distancing of at least three feet when possible.
Enforcing social distancing in crowded classrooms, especially with younger children, can be impossible, Vasquez said. Another difficulty will be making sure her students can hear her voice through her mask.
“As a teacher, our tool is our voice,” she said. “So we’re using our voice all day, and it’s horrible with the mask.”
Tiffany Doherty, who teaches 8th grade math at Anwatin Middle School, has a plan she hopes will avoid this obstacle. She’ll be pre-recording her lessons on video and showing the video in class. Doherty developed this technique during the time when all in-person classes were shut down.
While she lamented the added challenges that masking brings to learning, Doherty did say that some advantages come from pre-recording her lessons. Not only should students be able to hear the lesson better during class, but they can also play the video back later if they have questions. They can play the lesson at home with their parents as well.
“It’s kind of bittersweet,” Doherty said. “It’s changing everything we knew, but there are some benefits to it. It might be for the better. Who knows. We’ll see.”