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Minnesota school leaders are spending the last precious weeks of summer break agonizing over a decision they'd hoped to avoid this year: whether to require everyone in school to wear masks.

As recently as a few weeks ago, many districts were on track to begin a school year that looked mostly like those of pre-pandemic times. But the surge in COVID-19 cases fueled by the virus' delta variant halted some of those plans.

Now, school boards and administrators are racing to reassess their strategies — and coming up with a patchwork of policies that may vary considerably in neighboring communities. A growing number of districts, primarily in the Twin Cities metro but also in smaller cities elsewhere, have moved quickly to mandate masks for all or most people in school buildings. But in much of rural Minnesota and several districts on the edges of the metro, masks and other measures like quarantines will be optional.

Underlying all of the decisions are widely shared desires to keep school buildings open and students and staff safe — and deep, highly political divisions have played out in raucous school board meetings and a frenzy of e-mails and phone calls to school leaders.

"It's been really intense," said Jonathan Weinhagen, chairman of the Mounds View school board. "It's not an exaggeration to share that I have responded to hundreds of e-mails, on both sides of the issue."

Mounds View was among several districts that shifted course last week, opting to mandate masks for all students, staff and visitors to school buildings. Masks will now be required for everyone in Roseville, Robbinsdale, Hopkins and Edina, among other districts, following similar decisions made earlier in Minneapolis, St. Paul and other large school systems. Mandates are also in place in districts including Duluth, Rochester, St. Cloud, Sartell-St. Stephen and St. Peter.

A few districts, including Mankato, Minnetonka and South Washington County, are requiring masks in elementary and middle school buildings, where most students are too young to qualify for COVID-19 vaccines, and recommending them in high schools. But others, including Anoka-Hennepin, Eastern Carver County, Elk River and Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan are recommending masks but not mandating them at any grade level.

Districts are closely monitoring the virus' spread, so current decisions could be overturned in the coming days and weeks.

"The closer you are to urban and inner-ring suburbs, it seems to be less controversial, with more broad support [for mandates,]" said Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts. "And the farther you move out into the exurban areas is where it gets to be more split or even weighing more heavily on the opposition to mandates."

School leaders who have made both kinds of decisions say they're following recommendations from state and federal health officials. But the shifting health guidance in recent weeks has landed more heavily on the side of universal masking, regardless of people's vaccination status. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending that everyone in areas with substantial virus transmission — currently most of Minnesota — and in schools everywhere wear masks indoors. Universal masking inside schools is also recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Because Gov. Tim Walz's emergency powers have expired, the state of Minnesota can no longer require masks in schools. But in July, state health and education officials urged schools to adopt mask mandates to slow the community spread of the virus and protect students too young to be vaccinated. County health departments have issued similarly strong advisories.

In some districts, Croonquist said, leaders have pondered whether sidestepping those recommendations could bring legal trouble if the virus spreads in schools. Others have been swayed by the rising COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations or other factors.

In Robbinsdale, Superintendent David Engstrom said state guidance that allows masked students to stay in classrooms even after being in close contact with someone who tested positive — rather than having to quarantine at home for a week or more — was particularly compelling.

"If there's consistent mask use in the classroom, then if a student gets sick they're the one that goes home," he said. "The class can continue on and we don't have to do rolling closures of classrooms and isolating students."

Parents raise concerns

In school board meetings across the state, some parents have pleaded with board members and superintendents to require masking, pointing to studies about masks' effect on viral transmission or concerns about risks to students, staff and families who don't qualify for a vaccine or have underlying health conditions. Others have turned out in large numbers to tell school leaders they don't believe masks stop the spread of COVID-19, that masks could harm students' social and emotional development — or that schools are overstepping their bounds by making any requirement.

Some of those parents have expressed frustrations about schools' decisions throughout the pandemic, including building closures and canceled events. Sarah Ronchak, an Elk River parent, is a leader in a national group called Open Schools USA that opposes mask mandates and other restrictions.

This month, she sent a letter to Walz, mirroring a similar one circulating in Wisconsin, that calls mask mandates and other school precautions "objectively cruel to the most vulnerable in our society, our children." A few dozen Minnesota groups opposing COVID-19 safety measures in schools signed on, pledging not to mask their children.

"We want to have choice," said Ronchak, who is opting to home-school her son this year. "Choice is what freedom is, especially on this topic."

Others, though, say the fact that tens of thousands of students are already in quarantine in states that began school this month — many in places without mask rules — shows the risk of going without.

Jeremy Frank, a parent of an elementary student in Minnetonka, said masks are critical to avoiding that scenario.

"There's an element of, yes, I want to keep my child safe from getting sick," he said, "but I also want to keep my child in school and have the best learning situation."

In some areas of greater Minnesota, especially where school buildings remained open for much of last year, there's been less debate. Mandy Fletcher, superintendent of Blue Earth Area Schools in southern Minnesota, said that's because there's a prevailing feeling in the community on one side of the issue: no masks required in schools.

The district decided against a mask mandate and Fletcher said she's received only a handful of calls on the subject. She's "cautiously optimistic" about the school year, but wonders if it could play out like last year, when COVID-19 cases spiked in the fall.

"With the new delta variant, I wouldn't be shocked if we saw something similar," she said.

Erin Golden • 612-673-4790