COVID Mask

UPDATE: This story was updated with new information Friday morning.Hutchinson School Board Chair JoEllen Kimball would like the board to regularly revisit the district’s COVID-19 preparedness plan during its monthly meetings. It’s a decision that could spark controversy within the community, as well as put members of the board at odds with each other based on fiery language posted to social media this past week.

At its Aug. 9 meeting, a split board approved the district’s preparedness plan, which does not include a mask mandate for students or staff. Board Members Michael Massmann, Tiffany Barnard and Keith Kamrath approved the plan, while Board Members Kimball and Sara Pollmann voted against it. Board Member Erin Knudtson, a physician at Hutchinson Health, was not present at the meeting because she had recently tested positive for COVID-19.

The latest dispute on the issue was sparked last Thursday after Kimball requested a special meeting to discuss the plan, citing her concern about growing case numbers in the community and schools.

“When we approved it at the meeting in August, it was approved with the idea it could change,” Kimball said. “The cases are going up in McLeod County and we have students with COVID, and we have staff with COVID.”

According to the district website, in three weeks there have been 46 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among the district’s 2,859 students, and seven confirmed cases among the district’s 463 staff.

In McLeod County, data from the Minnesota Department of Health released Monday reported 4,906 confirmed cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began. That’s an increase of 387 since school started Aug. 30. There have also two more COVID-related deaths reported since Aug. 30, bringing the total to 63 since the pandemic began.

Following Kimball’s request for a special meeting, School Board Member Michael Massmann took to a Facebook group called McLeod County MN Freedom, where he shared an email from Superintendent Daron VanderHeiden seeking to confirm the schedules of School Board members for the requested meeting. Massmann also made a heated call to arms and accused other board members of deceiving the public.

“Resident’s (sic) of Hutchinson, the time is now. JoEllen Kimball, Erin Knutson (sic) and Sara Pollmann are attempting to pull a fast one and deceive the parents and residents of the Hutchinson School District,” Massmann’s post read. “Just a few weeks ago, the Hutchinson School Board of Education passed a COVID preparedness plan than (sic) removed masking decisions from the hands of the school district, and gave the right to masking back to parents where it belongs. Now, only weeks later, and like a couple of pissed off teenagers who didn’t get their way, they are bringing the issue back.”

Massmann’s post was quickly shared on other Facebook pages, leading to an outcry from members of the public opposed to a district mask mandate. The backlash led to Kimball withdrawing her request for a special meeting, but she made it clear that she intends to keep the issue of the district’s COVID preparedness plan on future agendas.

“We didn’t even have a meeting (scheduled) and it was already bringing in an awful lot of social media dissatisfaction, both from the board and the community,” Kimball said. “We decided it would maybe do more harm than good, and going forward we would attempt to put the COVID plan on every regular meeting agenda.”

She said she spoke with other board members who agreed with the decision to withdraw the request for a special meeting. The board’s next regular meeting is Oct. 11.