After Albert Lea school outbreak, Minnesota health officials urge schools to mask up

In a call on Friday, Minnesota health leaders are urging schools to take steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 as the state sees an increase in cases, including at schools, camps, and child care facilities.

In the past week, the state recorded 324 new COVID-19 cases connected to places where children gather. In Albert Lea, the school district reported nearly 300 students had been placed into quarantine after the first week of classes due to an outbreak that included at least 36 positive cases at the school.

The district started the school year with a face mask recommendation but has now shifted to making the policy mandatory for students in grades 6 through 12.

Now, the state is calling on others districts to not make the same mistake. Due to the expiration of the governor's peacetime emergency on COVID-19, the state doesn't have the power to mandate guidelines for schools, state leaders say.

However, schools have the power to take steps in their own hands, including mandating maks, encouraging eligible students to get vaccinated, follow CDC guidance, and take steps to allow for social distancing in classes.

"Local schools have the responsibility to establish effective health and safety policies," said Minnesota Health Commission Jan Malcolm. "But we're concerned to hear reports that in some school districts and schools, the fact that we at the state are no longer mandating these prevention measures is being misunderstood to mean that the recommendations are not important or that we don't feel they are essential to implement. I want to be really clear on this point. This layered prevention approach is something we are strongly urging schools to follow in the face of the highly contagious Delta variant."

"There has never been a more important time than right now where everyone in schools where there is a high transmission of the virus to be masking and using the multiple layers of prevention available to prevent infection," added Malcolm.

Malcolm says mitigation efforts won't be perfect and even schools doing everything right could face disruption. But, schools that neglect guidance should expect longer and more frequent disruptions to the school year.

With that, health leaders also reinforced the importance of masking for students and staff, regardless of vaccination status. Their main point: Masking works.

"So one is that it serves as a source control, which we've talked about, which means that it's blocking particles and droplets from the person wearing it. So when you're exhaling or breathing, you're not going to have droplets going out to someone else," explained Kris Ehresmann with the Department of Health.

Studies also show masks can protect the wearer along with others, Ehresmann adds. And it's not just studies in a laboratory environment but researchers have examined real-world impacts.

"In addition to those specific kinds of studies, they have also they also look at community studies where they actually say, 'OK, here's a community that had a mask mandate and here's a community that didn't,'" concluded Ehresmann. "When we look at the broadest community level we're seeing masking is beneficial."

But, again, leaders say masks are just part of the multi-layered approach to slow COVID-19 spread. Getting vaccinated is an important step as well as staying home if you are feeling sick or have a fever.