Parents speak out against mask requirement at West Fargo Public Schools

The Return To Learn plan has been a set of guidelines the district has used since March 2020 to return students to learning in the classroom rather than using distance learning or a hybrid model, which the district used for much of the year during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Written By: Wendy Reuer | May 10, 2021

About 30 parents attended the Monday, May 10 West Fargo School Board meeting, mostly to speak out against the district's mandate for masks to be worn while inside district buildings. Wendy Reuer

About 30 parents attended the Monday, May 10 West Fargo School Board meeting, mostly to speak out against the district’s mandate for masks to be worn while inside district buildings. Wendy ReuerWendy Reuer

WEST FARGO — Although there are only 13 days left in the 2020-21 school year, a group of about 30 parents attended the Monday, May 10, West Fargo School Board meeting to speak out against the district’s mandate for masks to be worn while inside district buildings.

On Monday’s agenda, the School Board planned to approve ending its “Return to Learn” plan on May 31. The Return to Learn plan is a set of guidelines the district has used since March 2020 to return students to learning in the classroom rather than using distance learning or a hybrid model, which the district used for much of the year during the COVID-19 pandemic.

One parent said she was speaking for her 11-year-old son who thought masks should be optional because “he can’t see his friends’ faces,” and it’s difficult for him to know what they are thinking. She also claimed there has not been enough research on psychological effects of making a child wear a mask.

Tara Bultema began to tear up as she talked about ill effects she believes her children experienced due to wearing masks.

Jeremy Wehrman, who began by saying he is a doctor, said masks do not stop the spread of the virus and can cause brain damage. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states masks prevent spread of the coronavirus by helping contain respiratory droplets, and there is no evidence that masks cause brain damage.

When Board President Patti Stedman asked Wehrman what he was a doctor of, he said dentistry.

Sean Kasson, who said he was a former prosecutor, said the district is “creating hypochondriacs” and “encouraging bullying” by mandating masks.

“Schools are supposed to be teaching independent thought, not just compliance,” he said.

Parents Brooke Voigt and Holly Flach both echoed statements that the school board was not acting in the best interest of their children.

“You were not elected to make medical decisions for my children,” Voigt said.

However, not everyone who spoke at the meeting was against requiring masks to be worn.

Margit Scmelka said the board should leave the mask policy in place until there is a higher number of people in the district and community that have been vaccinated.

Jerry Standifer, principal at Harwood Elementary School, said it has been a very scary year for everyone, especially those who work in health care and education.

“What we’re doing is keeping the numbers low. At Harwood, we have not had one transmission on site,” Standifer said.

West Fargo Education Association President Jordan Willgohs spoke on behalf of most staff and requested the board continue the mask requirement as planned. He said discontinuing it with just two weeks left of the school year would be disruptive to students’ learning.

Two weeks prior to Monday’s meeting, a group of about a half dozen protestors stood along Main Avenue near the Leidal Education Center holding signs declaring opposition to the district requiring masks. The West Fargo School Board allows comments at its meetings, but comments are limited to items that are on the agenda at that time.

Superintendent Beth Slette said the district has been working during the pandemic with both the state health department and Essentia Health.

“With each step, what we tried not to do is put students in and out of school,” she said. “We tried to be consistent.”

Slette brought the board a recommendation to suspend the Return to Learn plan on May 31 with a plan for summer learning in June that would govern the district through June.

In June, when summer school would be held, masks would no longer be mandated for staff and students.

About 600 students in grades nine through 12 and about 500 students in middle school attend summer school.

The June plan would require anyone with minor symptoms of COVID-19, such as a fever, to stay home for 24 hours and would encourage students or staff who come in contact with a positive COVID-19 case to quarantine for 10 days, but the district would no longer continue contact tracing.

“As we’ve done all year, it’s moving one step at a time,” Slette said.

The board approved suspending the Return to Learn Plan effective May 31 and using the recommended guidelines for June by a unanimous vote.

“Since we have 12 days left of school, to somehow finish the year and not upset our staff, students, it’s best we finish out the year,” Stedman said.

“There are a lot of different things that got us to this point, and we just really try to make decisions based on data,” said School Board President Jon Erickson. “We were able to use different mitigations all year just to get the students in school. Masks and mitigations have got us this far. Not everyone has had the same experience, and I appreciate that, but I think at this point we just try and get through this year.”

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