The Whitman-Hanson Regional School District voted 6-4 to amend to the mask policy to reflect the recommendation — rather than mandate — of mask wearing by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) at its Wednesday, Aug. 18. The Committee strongly recommends wearing masks. [See story, this page]. They were scheduled to continue discussion on COVID protocols at district schools on Wednesday, Aug. 25.
“Tomorrow, the governor can make a mask mandate,” Superintendent of Schools Jeff Szymniak said, noting that state protocols could change and that Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont had mandated masks in his state’s schools Tuesday, Aug. 17.
Szymaniak said new teachers were to report Monday, Aug. 23 and he needed to have some direction. The issue was to be revisited this Wednesday, Aug. 25.
Those expressing disagreement with the vote pointed to concern over variants, discrepancies in where masks are required and social interactions with those who do not wear masks.
“I’m extremely concerned that a recommendation is viewed as an option,” said member Dawn Byers. “This is a public school and I support a universal mask mandate in W-H schools K-12.”
She noted that medical offices, public transportation and Whitman’s Duval’s Pharmacy require masks. Szymaniak recommended to continue following the COVID-19 protocols from DESE and the Mass. Department of Public Health (DPH).
Szymaniak said the district received close to 500 responses to his communication about state COVID recommendations for the fall, ranging “all over the place.”
That made up the committee’s public comment segment on the issue.
“I appreciate everyone who chose to respond,” Szymaniak said. “I want to make sure that folks in the community know that those responses will be … on our website.”
He said he is not permitted to ask vaccination status, but if parents inform the school nurse, it can help with contact tracing.
Chairman Christopher Howard stressed for the public than no one on the School Committee are doctors or epidemiologists.
“We try to be as informed as we can, we rely on the guidance of those that provide it,” Howard said.
“I have a second-grader who hasn’t had a regular school year,” member Hillary Kniffen said with some emotion. “I want nothing more for her, but I also know in our strategic plan, it says that we need to keep kids safe.”
She said that families who want to have their children masked deserve some safeguards in place. There should also be a benchmark as to when masks can be removed.
“Based on these comments, I also have a concern, myself, of the culture of school buildings,” Kniffen said. “I am pleading with families. Regardless of your persepective, you [should] teach your children to be kind, because you don’t know what other families are going through.”
Member Fred Small noted that a face-covering policy still in effect “references guidance that’s no longer there.” He also noted that summer camp program had no mask policy and, while some children wore masks, they were treated respectfully.
“We’ve got this,” said member Steve Bois, who works at the JFK Library where only six people are allowed entry at once. “We can do this.”
He supported the DESE and DPH guidelines.
Member Michelle Bourgelas noted that the American Academy of Pediatrics and the CDC recommend universal masking K-12 regardless of vaccination status. The Mass. Medical and Mass Academy of Pediatricians are asking Gov. Charlie Baker to mandate masks K-12 as well.
“There are other authorities besides DESE,” she said.
“One of the pillars of our district is a safe school environment for our faculty and staff, students and whoever our visitors are, said Szymaniak. “As of March 13, 2020, it has been challenging at best to maintain a safe environment — that pleases all, to make decisions that please all, and open school.”
He noted that people have had differing opinions since school doors closed on March 13, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The district has followed the recommendations of the DESE and DPH from the outset. When the school year ended on June 16, “I thought we were going to open like 2019 all over again,” he said. “We had high hopes that we wouldn’t have a conversation about masks and social distancing and all I knew was we were going to have a lot of hand sanitizer, because we got cases and cases and cases of that.”
With that in mind, he asked lead nurse Lisa Tobin to request a statement from both towns’ boards of health and the school physician, based on his intent to ask the School Committee to maintain and follow the DESE and DPH guidelines.
“Seeing what’s going on with the rest of the country’s school systems, I don’t think we should act individually,” Hanson Health Agent Gil Amado stated. “Mass. Counties are now in the CDC high-risk category. I believe the governor, along with DESE/DPH, will come out with other guidance in the near future,”
School physician David Belcher said he felt the proposal was “as good as it’s going to get at this moment.”
“People need to be aware that this is a fluid situation and if COVID numbers climb quickly after the start of school, universal masking may be necessary,” he said, although he added he hoped it would not be the case. “The Delta variant appears to behave a little differently and affect children more.”
Whitman Health Agent Daniel Kelly reached out to board members individually about the DESE recommendation, and will not be able to discuss it as a board until Aug. 24. But the board is in support of DESE’s recommendation — with some changes.
“The number one consideration is the safety of students and staff,” Kelly wrote. “The board recommends the use of masks in all schools to keep everyone as safe as possible.”
The district received a memorandum requiring full-time in-person education of all school districts and programs for the 2021-22 school year from DESE and the DPH on June 30 of this year.
“I am not allowed to offer a remote program for next year,” Szymaniak said.
The memorandum quoted CDC guidelines that vaccinations and continued masking was recommended for all K-12 schools and — because in-person instruction is so important — schools without universal vaccinations should implement physical distancing to the extent possible. DESE and the DPH noted Massachusetts has among the highest vaccination rates in the nation and the efficacy of the vaccine.
Vaccination rates for 12- to 15-year-olds in Hanson are: One dose — 249; fully vaccinated — 198; 16- to 19-year-olds One dose — 402; fully vaccinated — 358. That represents 39 percent for 12- to 15-year-olds and a 63 percent for 16- to 19-year-olds.
For Whitman 12- to 15-year-olds: One dose — 430; fully vaccinated — 337; 16- to 19-year-olds One dose — 537 (the number of fully vaccinated was apparently omitted). That represents 50 percent for 12- to 15-year-olds and a 63 percent for 16- to 19-year-olds.
“We’re under the state average for both,” Szymaniak said.
Tobin said she is applying to the DESE to test in all district health clinics.
Test and Stay affects quarantining. A rapid test is given to staff and students identified as close contacts to a COVID case. Tests are administered for five straight days as long as they remain asymptomatic and test negative they do not need to quarantine. Symptomatic testing allows a student to stay in school if they test negative.
“This fall DESE and DPH strongly recommends that all students in kindergarten through grade six wear masks when indoors, except students who cannot do so due to medical conditions or behavioral needs,” the memo stated. “Masks are not necessary outdoors and may be removed while eating indoors.”
The agencies also recommend that unvaccinated staff in all grades, unvaccinated students in grades seven and above and unvaccinated visitors wear masks indoors. They recommended that vaccinated students be allowed to remain unmasked.
Those at high risk for disease from COVID, or with a household member who is at high risk, is encouraged to mask regardless of vaccination status.
“Any child or family who prefers to mask at school should be supported with this choice,” the memo continued. A federal order requires all students and staff to wear masks on school buses. Masks must also be worn in school health offices.
District and schools are also encouraged to maintain and establish a “robust testing” program for COVID-19, including both diagnostic testing and screening and pool testing provided at no cost to districts — especially important during cold and flu season.
DESE and DPH indicated they will be releasing updated contact tracing and quarantine protocols.