The school district serving the southern Minnesota city that Mayo Clinic calls home took a commendable step this week. When classes resume in Rochester, students ages 2 through 11 will be required to wear masks when they're inside school facilities.
Every Minnesota school should follow that lead and expand it to include students and staff at every grade level regardless of vaccination status. It's the responsible course of action as COVID-19's dangerously transmissible delta variant circulates and the vaccine has yet to be authorized for children under 12. Protecting children and stopping the virus are paramount.
But the relative ease with which Rochester's school board took a strong step toward a mask mandate is unlikely to be duplicated elsewhere around the state. Most schools don't have a world-class medical center in their city, with the built-in community support for public health that this brings. There's also widespread weariness with COVID mitigation measures, likely leading to pushback against masking requirements.
That's why the clear, strong guidance issued this week by the state departments of Health and Education is welcome. On Wednesday, officials from both agencies strongly recommended indoor masking for all K-12 students, staff and visitors regardless of vaccination status. The state call hews to updated guidance this week from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The American Academy of Pediatrics also has called for "universal masking" in schools.
With that consensus, the message is unmistakable: Masking for K-12 students is "best practice." The state Health Department stopped short of a mandate, but its strong recommendation strikes a balance: respecting the state's long tradition of local school leadership while making it clear that action is urgent. School boards and administrators across Minnesota should heed this medical expertise — not online rumors and conspiracies — as they put COVID control measures into place for the upcoming school year.
With the delta variant driving alarming case growth here and elsewhere, it is reckless not to require students and staff to mask up. Again, the vaccine is not yet authorized for use for children under 12. Masking for the school day will help protect young children until the shot is available.
One of the COVID vaccines — the one made by Pfizer — is authorized for kids ages 12 through 17. That might lead some to argue that older students don't need a mask.
But a look at state vaccination data quickly dispels this notion. Just 35% of Minnesotans aged 12 to 15 are fully vaccinated. That rises to 47% for those ages 16 and 17 — better, but still leaving far too many students unprotected and able to spread the virus to families and their communities.
Others who object to masking might point out that severe COVID is rare in children. The reality is that it is still possible. Three Minnesota children have died of COVID complications. In addition, the state has reported 97 cases of a serious condition linked to COVID called multisystem inflammatory syndrome, or MIS-C.
It's also unclear what the long-term effects are from a mild COVID infection in children.
Vaccination remains the most potent weapon against the COVID virus. Until more young people have gotten the shots, requiring a mask inside the classroom remains the most practical course of action to thwart the highly transmissible delta variant.
School boards shouldn't hesitate to take this vital step.