FARGO — The North Dakota Medical Association is urging school leaders throughout the state to mandate mask-wearing for students when classes resume this fall in the midst of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

A letter by the association representing physicians sent to the presidents of every public school district in North Dakota “strongly recommends” they adopt policies mandating masks for educators, students and staff.

Those recommendations are based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which last month recommended Americans wear face coverings to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Masks are a “critical tool in the fight against COVID-19 that could reduce the spread of the disease when used universally in communities,” Dr. Misty Anderson, an internal medicine physician and president of the North Dakota Medical Association, wrote in the letter dated Aug. 11.

Illustration by Troy Becker / Forum News Service
Illustration by Troy Becker / Forum News Service

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Doctors wanted to get help get the message out that mask-wearing can help make schools and communities safer if their use is widely adopted, Anderson said.

“There’s a lot of controversy about wearing masks, unfortunately,” she said. Parents should set examples for their children by wearing masks outside the home, she added.

Failure to adopt safeguards including mask-wearing, social distancing and frequent hand-washing could cause coronavirus infections to increase this fall — which also marks the start of influenza season that intensifies in winter.

“It’s very worrisome,” Anderson said, adding she has three children she’s sending to school in Valley City, N.D.

“I want this to work,” she said, adding it’s important for children to be in school. Also, she said, “We want to protect our teachers, too.”

A neighbor who is a teacher retired a year early because of concerns that she could catch COVID-19 in the classroom, Anderson said. There’s also the risk that students could bring infections home with them, she said.

In recommending mask-wearing, the CDC cited two recent studies that found masks help prevent the spread of the virus. One study found universal mask-wearing reduced infections in a Boston hospital system, while another found two infected hair stylists in Missouri didn’t spread the virus to their customers.

Even if masks are only 50% effective in reducing infections, Anderson said, “That’s better than nothing.”

"If everyone were to wear a face covering when out in public the risk of exposure for COVID-19 can be reduced for the community."

— Dr. Misty Anderson, an internal medicine physician and president of the North Dakota Medical Association

Leaders of the North Dakota Medical Association considered writing a letter to Gov. Doug Burgum urging that he mandate masks, but decided against it. One reason is they believe Burgum has done a good job in responding to the pandemic.

Also, Anderson added, “We felt like we might be crossing a line, and we’d lose people if we pushed this too far.”

In the letter, however, North Dakota physicians broadly support universal mask-wearing.

"If everyone were to wear a face covering when out in public the risk of exposure for COVID-19 can be reduced for the community," Anderson wrote.

Three of North Dakota’s largest public school systems will require masks to some degree when school resumes this fall, according to back-to-school plans reported by Forum News Service.

Fargo Public Schools’ plan includes an online virtual academy for kindergarten through 12th grade, with students choosing that option committed for a semester. Elementary students would begin in a hybrid learning environment, while middle and high school students would return to distance learning. In school, students and staff will be required to wear masks.

Bismarck Public Schools also plan to have a hybrid system, combining distance and in-class instruction. Schools will operate at 50% capacity, rotating between in-person and distance learning. Masks will be required for students when social distancing cannot be maintained.

A hybrid approach also is planned by West Fargo Public Schools, with students returning to the classroom two days per week and learning virtually the rest of the week. The plan would require students to wear masks in hallways while moving between classes.