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Students return to classroom in West Fargo, masks recommended for those unvaccinated

The District decided to move from “masks optional” to “masks recommended for those unvaccinated” in their back to school plan.
The District decided to move from “masks optional” to “masks recommended for those...
The District decided to move from “masks optional” to “masks recommended for those unvaccinated” in their back to school plan.(Valley News Live)
Published: Aug. 26, 2021 at 4:11 AM CDT
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WEST FARGO, N.D. (Valley News Live) - West Fargo Public School students and staff are returning to school today. Masks are not required but are recommended for those that are not vaccinated.

A joint letter from Superintendent Beth Slette and Board President Jim Jonas has been sent to WFPS families and staff. It is as follows,

“The start of school is always very exciting; it’s the opportunity to set new goals and reconnect with our friends and colleagues. We are on the brink of what is going to be an amazing year of learning, growing, and building relationships. Today’s communication to families and staff is to make you aware that the district is moving from “masks optional” to “masks recommended for those unvaccinated” for the 2021-22 school year. We also hope that this message helps our families and staff to understand the “why” behind this decision, regardless of your opinion on masks.

The district’s strategic plan has three broad goals that include not only academics, but the physical, social, and emotional wellbeing of our students and we believe this is equally important for our staff members. Each child and staff member are unique, which is why we feel it is critical to include families and staff in these conversations. Therefore, as your superintendent and board president, it is important for us to hear from you while making decisions that will affect the wellbeing of you and/or your student(s). We also want you to have as much information as possible to make this important decision.

First, we felt it was important to look back at the 2020-21 school year, which began in the hybrid model. This model allowed us to physically distance six feet in the classroom. All students and staff were masked, and we implemented a variety of other mitigation strategies including increased handwashing etiquette, improved air handler systems to filter and provide fresh air, contact tracing, extensive cleaning measures, and disinfecting/sanitizing high-touch surfaces. By mid-January 2021, all students were back in school at least four days a week, and at the elementary, five days. Although we were unable to physically distance the second half of the year, we still had great success slowing the spread.

Over the course of the 2020-21 school year, we had 872 students and 302 staff members test positive. That number is high, but here is what was remarkable: we traced the source of the infection back to the school setting only a handful of times. In 99% of our cases, the infection was traced back to a close contact in the home or community. We cannot say for certain if it was one mitigation strategy or all combined, but our data was clear: we saw extremely limited transmission in our schools.

We will begin this school year by recommending that all students and staff who are not vaccinated wear a mask while in the school. Additionally, we will be offering onsite rapid testing for all students (with parental permission) and staff. Unlike last year when test availability was low and there was a delay in the receipt of results, we will know instantly and can avoid further spread in the classroom. We’re also partnering with Essentia on future opportunities for vaccination and will continue to try to provide as much support as possible for our families and our staff.

We want our families and staff to consider the information in this letter, review all information available to them, and visit with their healthcare provider to choose what is best for themselves and their student(s)’s overall wellbeing. The CDC, Fargo Cass Public Health, and Essentia Health have encouraged universal masking. Whatever your decision on masking, the district will support you and/or your student(s) but expect that all students and staff respect the decisions of their peers. West Fargo Public Schools has amazing educators and support staff to ensure that students and staff will not be bullied or harassed based on their family’s choice regarding any of these decisions. If you wish to mask and do not have access to approved face coverings, WFPS can provide students and staff with multiple masks to ensure that they always have a clean, dry, and well-fitting mask available. We also will ensure that adequate mask breaks are provided in a safe manner.

As a district, we must first focus on keeping our doors open and creating an environment that centers on learning. While school boards have the authority to mandate masks, the WFPS board has not exercised that authority to date. We believe if we pull together, we can accomplish this without a mandate from our school board, city commissioners, or health officer.

If we learned anything over the course of last year, it’s that decisions related to pandemic response need to be fluid and responsive. District administration is currently working to develop thresholds that may prompt the addition of new mitigation strategies (masking, contact tracing, and temporary distance learning) in particular classrooms, schools, or the district based on case data in our schools and community. We are prepared to adjust our pandemic response, including the implementation of a mask mandate by the School Board or abiding by a county-level mandate, when needed to ensure students and staff are able to safely remain in schools.

THANK YOU for taking the time to learn a bit more about what you can expect from WFPS this year. It is because of our students, families, staff, and community members that we continue to shatter enrollment projections and be the district of choice in North Dakota. Best wishes for an amazing 2021-2022 school year.”

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