RPS updates masking policy from required to strongly recommended

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(ABC 6 News) – RPS Interim Superintendent Pekel provided additional information about the masking update to families Wednesday morning.

Dear RPS Families,

Last evening, during the Rochester Public School Board’s regular meeting, the school board approved my recommendation to shift from a district-wide mask requirement to a building-by-building approach beginning March 7.

I want to make clear that this is not the end of requiring masks in Rochester Public Schools as a means of mitigating the spread of Covid. Rather, this makes masks strongly recommended but not required unless 5% or more of the students and staff in an RPS school or another facility test positive for Covid-19. If that threshold is met, all students, staff, and visitors to that school would be required to wear masks for two weeks. Given the low levels of Covid-19 in Rochester Public Schools today, no RPS school or facility currently meets that threshold.

There are instances where masks would still be mandated:

We will continue to require face coverings in the following environments and conditions for the foreseeable future:

  • Students in our early childhood programs who are younger than five years of age. Children who attend these programs are currently too young to be eligible for vaccination. I recommend to the school board that we discontinue the masking requirement for our early childhood students if and when vaccinations are approved for students younger than five years of age or if the transmission of the Covid virus in Olmsted County reaches the medium level. In the meantime, students in our early childhood programs will be able to participate in our district’s Test to Stay program.
  • Staff who tested positive for Covid and who have completed five-day isolation period followed by a negative test who would be required to mask in RPS facilities for days 6-10 following their initial positive Covid test.
  • Staff in our health services offices who provide direct services to students.
  • Students who are demonstrating symptoms of Covid or who are being sent home for other health-related reasons and are waiting to return home.

All of the other elements of Rochester Public Schools’ Safe and Open Schools Plan and strategy will remain in place, including but not limited to the following initiatives:

  • We will evaluate the transition to distance learning at the classroom, grade levels, and entire schools if our previously established thresholds for transitioning to distance learning are met. At the classroom level, that threshold is met when 15% of students and staff have symptoms of Covid-19 or test positive for Covid-19. At the grade level, the threshold is met if 50% of staff and students test positive or are symptomatic. At the school level, the threshold is met if 15% of staff are absent for any reason (including but not limited to testing positive for COVID), or 25% of students are absent for any reason, or 10% of all students in the building have tested positive for COVID.
  • We will require students who test positive for COVID to isolate for 10 days from the date of onset of symptoms or from the date of the positive test if asymptomatic. This 10-day isolation period is longer than the 5-day period that has been authorized by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) because the CDC recommends that the five day isolation period be followed by careful wearing of a face covering for days 6-10 following a positive Covid test. Because, if this recommendation is adopted, RPS would no longer have a universal mask requirement in place (and also because many students struggle to fully cover their noses and mouths with a mask even when a requirement is in place), we will continue to require the longer period of isolation.
  • We will continue to ask students and staff to socially distance to the greatest extent possible.
  • We will make high-quality KN95 masks available to staff and secondary students who want to wear them as long as supplies are available. We will make other high-quality masks available to our younger students as well.
  • We will continue to strongly encourage parents, guardians, and students to get vaccinated and will partner with medical providers and public health agencies to facilitate vaccinations.
  • We will continually remind both students and staff that wearing masks is strongly recommended even though it is not required, and we will take steps to ensure that RPS students who choose to wear a mask feel supported and are not bullied, as is outlined in this article from Boston Children’s Hospital. We will ask school principals to proactively share that message with students and parents through conversations in class and through school communications channels and we will do the same through outreach from the school district level. We will note that individuals who engage in disrespectful, harassing, or bullying behavior may be subject to disciplinary action as outlined in the RPS Student Handbook.

This is a difficult decision and I want you to know that in the course of developing this new approach, I listened to many of our students, parents, staff, and a good number of people in our community. I have also worked closely with our district’s core Covid team and have consulted with external experts. In addition, I have carefully reviewed recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and other medical and public health organizations. I will continue to consider all of those perspectives in the days and weeks ahead and will adjust our strategy as we carefully monitor levels of the Covid-19 virus in our schools and in our community.

Again, this change will go into effect on Monday, March 7, 2022.

We will be updating our Safe and Open Schools Plan to reflect the new changes. The full memo that was shared with the RPS School Board last evening contains more information.

Kent Pekel, Ed.D.
Interim Superintendent of Schools

The Rochester Public School Board approved an update to its masking requirement at a board meeting Tuesday night.

Starting March 7, masks will be strongly recommended, not required, in school buildings.

This is a building-by-building approach rather than district-wide.

"We are at a point where we can prudently make a shift from requiring all students, staff and visitors in all of our schools to mask, or wear face coverings, at all times to a building-by-building approach," Superintendent Dr. Kent Pekel said.

However, face coverings will be required in RPS buildings if five percent of students and staff test positive for COVID-19 on a weekly reporting period.

Dr. Pekel said no RPS buildings currently meet that five percent threshold and haven’t since the spike in the Omicron variant because case rates are currently very low at RPS.

Face coverings will also still be required in early childhood settings where children under the age of five are present since they cannot be vaccinated as well as required for staff in RPS health services offices who provide direct services to students.

"This is a strategy that can sustain the school district through the foreseeable period of this pandemic," Dr. Pekel said.

For staff who test positive for COVID-19 and have completed the five-day isolation period followed by a negative test, masks will be required in RPS facilities for days six through ten following their initial positive COVID test.

If students are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 or are being sent home for other health-related reasons and are in the health office waiting to return home, face coverings will be required.

"Some of you will choose to wear masks. Some of you will not. There will be no judging. There will be no bullying," Rochester Public School Board Chair, Jean Marvin, said.

RPS said it will continue mitigation efforts such as monitoring COVID rates and switching to distance learning if case rates do ever rise to that point again. The ten-day isolation period will also stay in place for students who test positive, which is five days longer than the CDC recommendation. Social distancing will continue in classrooms when possible.