COVID safety measures reduced, mask mandate in CHPS ends

Sparks+fly+between+Heights+students+as+the+decision+to+take+their+masks+off+has+arrived.

Photo by Kwot Anwey

Sparks fly between Heights students as the decision to take their masks off has arrived.

Like many other districts before us, Columbia Heights Public Schools has officially lifted its mask mandate for all five K-12 schools as well as the district office and Family Center.  

The Director of Community Education and Communications wrote to families on April 4 that masks will be recommended but optional for students in kindergarten through grade 12. For students aged four and under, the use of masks in buildings and classrooms will still be required, due to the age group’s inaccessibility to the COVID-19 vaccine. Early Childhood Program teachers are required to wear masks in buildings and classrooms, while teachers outside these programs can choose whether or not to wear masks. Athletes, visitors and parents are also allowed to choose whether they wear a mask or not. Additionally, transportation workers for students in kindergarten through grade 12 can opt out of mask usage. Protocols regarding quarantine for students and staff with confirmed cases of and exposures to COVID-19 are still in place. 

Previously, Columbia Heights Public Schools was obligated to follow unprecedented measures against the deadly COVID-19 virus. For most of the 2020-21 school year, students were forced to spend time learning online at home. With the rise of vaccinations and somewhat “decreasing” virus rates, an in-person class was an option given for students in April 2021. This school year, in-person classes took place with the exception of a two-week period of Heights from Home in January 2022. With the help of teachers and administrators, safety measures were enforced and encouraged in the district. 

“I think they were very safe, and in our school we had a very low internal infection rate,” CHHS nurse Mr. Andy Hardman said. “Most of our COVID infections seemed to be from outside of school in the community or with students hanging out unmasked together outside of school. I think masks were pivotal in keeping people safe, but all masks aren’t created equal. Cloth and paper masks, which are what most staff and students wore, have a much lower ability to keep viral transmission low and KN95 & N95 masks are much more recommended.”

With case rates continuing to fluctuate and variants of the virus always a concern, the chance of returning to distance learning continues to linger. And despite several other Minnesota schools and districts following suit, the change in the mask policy remains under scrutiny by some. 

With the front office still handing out surgical masks, sometimes over four or five boxes a day, to those that want them, certain staff are supplying their own higher quality masks to students to hopefully reduce the chance of spread. In crowded classrooms, attempts to spread out students and otherwise mitigate transmission were and still continue to be very difficult for teachers. 

“I like the flexibility of the new rule, and as a teacher, I am going to continue wearing my mask while I am at my desk with students in the room and/or walking around the classroom among the students to check work [or] answer questions,” EL and Spanish teacher Ms. Rhonda Lingen said. “But I am not going to wear a mask when I am up in front of the class teaching because I need to project my voice. Right now I am using a simple medical mask, but if cases of the new variant become prevalent in Columbia Heights/Anoka county, I will switch back to double masking—wearing my high-quality N95 mask plus a cloth ‘flag’ mask on top.” 

Many students are also now finding themselves in exasperating situations trying to catch up and stay motivated to complete their work from school under these challenging and anxiety-provoking circumstances. Students are mentally and physically exhausted by the negative effects that this virus brought into their lives but continue to get through their daily activities. 

“The COVID pandemic has mostly affected how I manage my school work,” Dafne Borrayo Alvarado (12) said. “I started to become a bit more anxious about my homework, tests and other personal reasons that I kind of forgot about myself and the things I liked to do.” 

Following guidelines from Minnesota public health officials, COVID case numbers in the district will continue to be monitored, and the CHPS COVID-19 Dashboard will be updated weekly, just as it has for over a year. Despite the new changes, the CHPS district still encourages families to follow COVID safety measures as they see fit to ensure the safety of their families.