The masks are back.
The School Committee, themselves wearing masks again at their Wednesday, Aug. 25 meeting, discussed Superintendent of Schools Jeff Szymaniak’s being notified at 3:45 p.m. that day that Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) Commissioner Jeff Riley has mandated masks in schools through at least Oct. 1.
School Committee Chairman Christopher Howard said the panel’s vote last week to follow DESE guidance on masks recommendations meant no further action was required.
“This board, this superintendent, didn’t mandate this policy,” Szymaniak said. “The Board of Education has authorized [it] and the Board of Education supersedes all of us right now. … It’s a mask mandate by the commissioner of education and we’re expected to follow that.”
He asked parents, whether they agree with it or not, to help schools keep in compliance with the commissioner’s policy. Szymaniak stressed that the district had a good year last school year, despite dealing with a mask policy.
No social distancing guidelines were issued, but Szymaniak said teachers have been asked to space students out to three-feet apart when they can. Assistant Superintendent George Ferro said the six-foot distance guidelines is still referred to when contact tracing is needed.
“I’m not happy that it came out after 3:30 p.m. today and was effective immediately,” Szymaniak said. “It put us into a scramble with our orientation …school committee. We did it, but it put people into a spin.”
He said that, if he had been out of the office for any reason at that time, “We’d be behind the 8-ball.”
Whitman Town Administrator Lincoln Heineman had informed Selectmen on Tuesday, Aug. 24 that the state Board of Education had approved the mandate and an order could be expected. Riley had told Superintendents that day that he was going to ask the board and ask to have the authority to exercise the right to mask students for public safety through Oct.1, pending the achievement of an 80-percent vaccination rate among students and staff in a given school.
Parents wishing to inform the district about their child’s vaccination status should do so by contacting their school’s nurse. While there is no provision for remote learning this year, if a student gets COVID, they will be instructed as any student absent with an illness.
As of Aug. 18, Hanson had a 39-percent rate among students ages 12 to 15, and 63 percent among ages 16 to 19. Whitman had a 50-percent vaccination rate of ages 12 to 15, and 63 among ages 116 to 19.
The state average for ages 12 to 15 is 63 percent, and is 67 percent for ages 16 to 19.
In response to a question from member Christopher Scriven, Szymaniak said his interpretation of the order is that the mask madate would remain in effect for all unvaccinated students indefinately even after a school reaches 80 percent vaccinated.
Szymaniak added that news reports he has read indicate a vaccine for ages 5 to 12 is expected in November.
“But the way I read this, our K-grade six kids are going to be masked indefinitely until the vaccination is available,” he said.
He pledged to find ways to help increase the vaccination rate.
“If needed, I will work with both fire departments and physicians they connect with to offer vaccine clinics so that we can hit that threshhold, if needed,” Szymaniak said.
The School Committee had voted 6 to 4 on Aug. 17 to follow DESE regulations, which only recommended masks at that time. The Mass. Association of School Superintendents (MASS) contacted Szymaniak on Friday, Aug. 20 to be on the lookout for a call from the commissioner that day, who provided information about the Aug. 24 Board of Education meeting.
“This is flowing quickly,” Szymaniak said.
In accordance with the state’s time on learning requirements, all students age 5, and staff in all grades, above were to immediately begin wearing masks through at least Oct. 1. Masks are required indoors in school except when outdoors, with the commissioner reviewing the situation in the near future. All visitors to school buildings are expected to wear masks in school buildings.
Masks are recommended, but not required for students under age 5. Students with medical or behavioral issues are exempt from the requirement, or may be permitted to use a face shield instead.
Mask breaks are permitted during the school day and masks are not required when eating or drinking. Masks are also not required for students playing certain instruments during band classes.
Masks are required for all students and coaches playing sports indoors.
Families are expected to provide masks, but schools should be able to provide disposable masks. Parents were issued a statement from Szymaniak with complete mask requirements.
“We have mask signs going up and we will continue to educate the public,” he said.
Committee member Mike Jones asked if the district could legally require vaccines.
“Legally, we probably can, but we haven’t said that,” Szymaniak said. I think as an employer, we can. There’s precedent and there’s law around that. We have not done that yet.”
He said the district cannot legally ask a student to get the COVID vaccination, although certain vaccinations are required to attend school.