FARGO — A Sanford pediatric specialist and more than 150 other doctors across North Dakota are urging schools to adopt mask requirements with the continued spread of the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus and rise in COVID-19 cases among young people.

Dr. Grant Syverson, a pediatric rheumatologist in Fargo, made mask recommendations previously but took another shot with an open letter, backed by more physicians than before.

He said most schools simply aren’t taking sufficient steps to keep COVID-19 from spreading in their buildings.

The state’s vaccination rates aren’t high enough to protect children, he said, adding that North Dakota ranks near the bottom in the U.S. in that regard.

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“We all feel particularly alarmed,” Syverson said, referring to the pediatricians, specialists and family doctors who signed on to his letter.

Syverson penned the letter this week, recommending universal indoor masking for students, staff, teachers and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.

He sent it Sept. 8 to superintendents, school board associations, Gov. Doug Burgum and State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler.

Syverson said he took this on as advocacy chair for the North Dakota chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Physicians who signed the letter are also represented by the North Dakota Medical Association and the North Dakota Academy of Family Physicians.

Syverson said he intended to send a letter advocating masks to the North Dakota High School Activities Association, as well.

Only a handful of school districts in the state have mask requirements in place to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Fargo Public Schools have universal masking in place for all staff, students and visitors to buildings, regardless of vaccination status or community transmission rates.

Grand Forks Public Schools require masks, and in far northwestern North Dakota, on the Fort Berthold Reservation, New Town Public Schools do, too.

None of the major public schools in western North Dakota have such policies.

Both in Bismarck and Minot public schools, masks are recommended but not required. Minot Superintendent Mark Vollmer said they are closely monitoring infection rates.

“We learned last year that as we move through this process, things ebb and flow,” Vollmer said.

Syverson, the Fargo pediatric specialist, was invited to make a plea for masks before the school board meeting for the Richland No. 44 School District in Colfax on Wednesday, Sept. 8.

Masks are optional in the district’s two school buildings, where there’s currently an outbreak of COVID-19 with 25 of 275 students out sick with active cases.

Superintendent Britney Gandhi said the board agreed the numbers weren’t good, but it’s a trend “we’re hoping to curb.”

A motion for universal masking was voted down.

As of Thursday, there was one COVID-19 hospitalization among North Dakotans ages 19 and under, with 872 active cases in that age group, according to the state health department. Thus far, North Dakota has seen one child death from the virus — a 17-year-old girl from Parshall.

Syverson said returning to mask requirements could help ensure classes remain in-person this school year, and he’s optimistic the letter will make a difference.

“I hope it will change minds,” he said.