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Minnesota's largest school district will require masks for its youngest students when COVID-19 is circulating widely in surrounding communities.

The Anoka-Hennepin school board on Monday mandated masks for staff and students in kindergarten through sixth grade when county health department data reaches a particular threshold: at least 15 cases per 10,000 residents. Masks will be recommended, but not required, for students in grades 7 to 12 and staff and visitors working with those students.

The district's policy shift comes as the virus' delta variant has caused a spike in cases across Minnesota, and as many school districts have moved to mandate masks for some or all students and staff. A growing number of Minnesota districts, including St. Paul, Minneapolis, Osseo, Roseville, Duluth, St. Cloud and Edina, are requiring masks for everyone inside all school buildings. Others are taking the same tack as Anoka-Hennepin, requiring masks only for grade levels with students too young to qualify for a COVID-19 vaccine. That includes Mankato, Minnetonka and South Washington County schools.

A few districts, particularly on the outer reaches of the Twin Cities, are recommending, but not requiring, mask use at every grade level. Many greater Minnesota districts are doing the same.

Case counts in Anoka and Hennepin counties have been rising and are nearing the threshold that would prompt the district to require masks for its younger students.

Superintendent David Law said the masking policy, which will be reviewed weekly when the district receives updated data, was developed in consultation with local health officials — and after receiving significant feedback from families on both sides of the masking debate. That includes dozens of parents who packed Monday's school board meeting, jeering at speakers and board members who expressed support for masks.

"This recommendation respects almost every voice in the room and tries to provide that balance of safety for students and choice for parents as much as possible," Law said.

Anoka-Hennepin's new policy will take effect on Sept. 7, the first day of the school year.

The wide variety in COVID-19 protocols in schools reflects a major change from the last school year, when Gov. Tim Walz had emergency powers that enabled him to mandate masks and other safety measures at a statewide level. Without those powers, the state departments of health and education can issue only recommendations, leaving decisionmaking to local school boards and administrators.

The state has urged school districts to require masks for all students, staff and visitors, citing recent recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Some speakers at the Anoka-Hennepin board meeting cited those recommendations, urging board members to consider the risks to students younger than 12, who don't yet have the opportunity to get vaccinated, and the students, families and community members at high risk of complications from the virus. Others told the board that they believe a mask recommendation would overstep parents' rights to make health-related decisions for their children.

Monday evening's lengthy, raucous meeting played out similarly to other districts' recent discussions on masking, which has become a highly contentious topic for schools. Board Chairwoman Marci Anderson paused several times to plead with the audience to act respectfully so that the board could carry on with its work.

Speaking over the din of audience members yelling as she delivered her remarks, Board Member Nicole Hayes lamented that the hard work of making public health decisions — something for which she said school board members have no training or preparation — had prompted such an outpouring of division and hostility.

"If our children were participating in a classroom that resembled some of the activity that has happened in this room and this building tonight, I would be disgusted and disappointed," she said.

Erin Golden • 612-673-4790