School mask mandates are being reduced to a recommendation after Feb. 28. Mask requirements on school buses, by federal mandate, and in school health clinics, by state regulation, are still in force. In the meantime, the School Committee is taking another budgetary look at non-mandated busing costs, a decision that ultimately lies with the boards of selectmen in each town.
Superintendent of Schools Jeff Szymaniak said his recommendation has been that the school district should continue to follow state education and health guidelines, as it has done since August 2020.
He stressed, when asked how masks would be enforced for unvaccinated persons, that the policy was a recommendation — not a requirement.
Szymaniak during the Wednesday, Feb. 9 School Committee meeting, said he had a Zoom call with Education Commissioner Jeffrey C. Riley, who indicated he is not asking to renew the mask mandate after Feb. 28.
“What that means for us is that after Feb. 28, DESE and MDPH are recommending masks only for students who are unvaccinated and staff that are unvaccinated,” he said. “They’ve pretty much dropped the recommendation for other folks attending preK to 12 — preK to 22 — schools, with the exception of buses.”
Because of HIPAA and other privacy rules, no one could really ask others about their vaccination status, making enforcement nearly impossible.
School Committee Chairman Christopher Howard said that, unless the committee disagreed with the DESE/MDPH recommendation and wanted to revisit an earlier vote to abide by them, no action was required. If they wished to reconsider that vote, the only other meeting scheduled before Feb. 28 was the Feb. 17 meeting, which was planned exclusively as a budget session.
“The uses of masks is a polarizing issue,” Howard said, noting that the committee received about 600 comments the last time feedback was sought.
“I can’t tell you the number of emails I’ve gotten from happy parents wanting to know how soon the masks can come off,” said Committee member, Fred Small, who was attending remotely be phone. He also reminded the Committee that the earlier vote was to abide by MDPH recommendations, not DESE.
He also said parents contacting him wanted to know why masks could not come off as early as the next day.
Committee member Heather Kniffen suggested that all Szymaniak needed to do was communicate with families about the latest information available so they can make an informed decision.
The Committee then followed Howard’s suggestion to amend the August 2020 vote to read that they would follow the recommendation of MDPH or DESE. That vote was unanimous.
Szymaniak noted that the district is mandated by law to bus all K-12 students who live two miles or farther away from a school to school each day.
“This is not your vote, but I want you to be aware,” Szymaniak said of the options open to the towns. “Things shift at Town Meeting [and] it does change the assessment that we can control.”
The district received regional transportation reimbursement for anyone living 1.5 miles and out, he said. They also provide non-mandated busing for students living .5 miles to 1.5 miles around a school, with the towns picking up that cost.
“Questions have come up in the past about non-mandated busing and do we need it? What can we do?” Szymaniak said. “We truly have local regional elementary schools. There’s a lot of kids that are [within] a mile and a half to the school.”
School Committee policy also requires that all kindergarten students, whether they live within 1.5 miles or not, are bused to school,” he said. “It’s our rule that we do that.”
While there has been occasional discussion about whether Whitman should consider halting non-mandated busing, Hanson has not done so and no calculations have yet been done for Hanson as a result of that fact.
Calculations on whether to keep non-mandates busing within a certain distance from a school takes into consideration whether students within walking distance are kindergarteners, have to cross state roads [routes 14, 18, 27 and 58], where there are no sidewalks or where there are registered sex offenders living in the area, Szymniak said. It creates a tier system for bus ridership on which the budget is based. Each tier represents a school to which a given bus drives students. Four-tier buses drive students to the high school, a town’s middle school and each elementary school. Of the 20 buses contracted from First Student, six are four-tier, 12 are three-tier and two are two-tier.
School Committee member Steve Bois said traffic at the intersection near WMS has been increasingly clogged and he wants to see the state address it.
“There’s no way I’m voting to get rid of any non-mandated busing,” he said.
First Student plugs data into software that makes bus assignments within the parameters of school start times and making sure they arrive safely.
It costs $9,747.20 per day for 20 buses to transport students to school in the district. For 180 school days, that totals $1,753,329.60 plus $10,000 for a fuel clause allocation in the First Student contract.
Byers wondered if there was any way, keeping in mind the time restrictions concerning how long students are on buses and the number of students assigned to each bus, the number of buses could be used in Hanson.
“We could continue to look at this,” Szymaniak said about keeping the committee informed.
“If we increased the ridership on a bus in Hanson, that bus would take longer to do its route,” Small said. “We would probably run into some contractual differences as far as start times go within the schools.”
He also suggested the high school might have to start even earlier to get a jump-start, because the same buses are used in both towns. He suggested a Finance Committee motion last year advocated that the non-mandated bus cost not be recommended for passage.
Pulling Whitman non-mandated busing out, the service costs $9,606.90 while changes the scheduling. Cutting out all Whitman non-mandated busing reduces the number of buses to 19, and costs $9,011.36.
Removing Whitman Middle School non-mandated busing saves $24,087 from the transportation budget and removing all Whitman non-mandated busing saves $131,284 in the overall transportation costs.
The number of students whose parents have opted out of bus travel to school in Hanson is 253 and in Whitman, it is 400.
“I have a concern, as a superintendent of students getting to school if non-mandated goes away,” he said. It would also increase vehicle traffic around schools as parents drop students off.
“It would [also] shift our assessments to the towns, because our transportation costs would remain high even though Whitman or Hanson wouldn’t be paying a line item in the budget,” Szymaniak said.
Complex calculations based on three scenarios have to begin with the fiscal ’23 general fund transportation budget, according to Business Manager John Stanbrook.
Scenario 1 starts with the assumption the non-mandated busing is as submitted in the fiscal 2023 budget at $1,7603,329.60. Scenario 2 assumes a cost of $1,739,242.69 with no Whitman Middle School busing — a savings of $54,680 — and Scenario 3 assumes a cost of $1,632,044.80 — a savings of $292,345 — with non-mandated busing for all of Whitman eliminated. Hanson’s costs would increase by $30,593 in Scnario 2 and $161,000 in Scenario 3.
“There’s still transportation costs,” he said.
“I want to get out in front of this with the committee,” Szymaniak said, indicating that traffic studies could be required if Whitman’s non-mandated busing is eliminated. “We’re trying to do our best.”
He said getting all parents to respond to any kind of survey is difficult, so it makes it hard for the district to make substantive decisions.
“I think it will be really important for you to build scenarios for Hanson,” said Committee Chairman Christopher Howard. “Based on how things have gone in the past … I would think, if this was to happen in Whitman … it’s going to cause a chain reaction.”