NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The School Committee voted to maintain universal masking within buildings and on school buses.
But it tabled a motion to remain in virtual mode for meetings until its September meeting.
The policy approved on Monday goes beyond state recommendations that "strongly recommends" mask wearing by unvaccinated individuals and does not require those vaccinated to mask. Superintendent Barbara Malkas noted that advice was based on the state's high vaccination rate and low transmission and not the conditions being created by the more contagious Delta variant.
"It's important to note that the context around this guidance around July 30, 2021, was actually based on data from mid-July," she said. "So it's about a month-old data that that guidance document was really built on. ...
"Fast forward by four weeks, what we're seeing right now is that the Delta variant is in fact highly contagious among those who are unvaccinated, specifically those under the age of 12, and in states that have already returned to school, particularly down South, where there are no mask mandates, they're seeing their infection rates climb, and the rate of hospitalizations in pediatric ICU has also increased."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control is advising universal masking in schools and the policy adopted on Monday is from the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. The Mount Greylock Regional School Committee adopted a similar policy on Friday.
Gov. Charlie Baker told reporters in Peabody on Monday that he would not interfere with local mask mandates but would also not impose a statewide mandate on face coverings.
School Committee members read about a half-dozen submitted comments in support of a mask mandate.
North Adams Teachers Association co-President Lisa Tanner and Michelle Darling wrote that they were "personally encouraging a mask mandate, as well as the majority of the teachers who responded to a recent survey ... The safest way we can provide fully in-person schooling is universal masking."
One educator wrote that the pandemic had proved people were willing to put themselves and others at risk and was "terrified at the prospect of allowing vaccinated students be unmasked on the honor system, and equally terrified to be around colleagues who I know do not mask out of school and have not been vaccinated." An elementary teachers wrote "I want the children I teach and the rest of us to be as safe as possible so we can worry less and feel again the joy of learning."
Malkas said Drury High Principal Timothy Callahan supported the universal masking because of the crossover between the upper and lower grades and their families.
"He has expressed the opinion that it should remain in place until there is a viable vaccination for our elementary grades, and that our students have had access to it long enough so that we have a sufficiently high, fully vaccinated population in the younger grades," she said. "I think that that's a great recommendation that we not consider rescinding the School Committee policy until there is a vaccination available to the elementary grades, and that we use public health data to support that."
The policy states that "a face covering that covers the nose and mouth must be worn by all individuals in school buildings and on school transportation. Face coverings must also be worn outside when social distancing cannot be observed."
The policy requires parents and staff to provide the face coverings and has a number of exemptions for specific circumstances.
"I'm 100 percent supporting mask mandates for the safety of our students and our staff," said Vice Chairwoman Heather Boulger. "I'm still concerned that whatever we decide tonight, we're still going to lose students, and we're still going to leave lose faculty, for whatever their personal feelings might be."
Malkas also went through a number of mitigation strategies the school system was using to prevent spread of the novel coronavirus, the highest being vaccination of eligible individuals ages 12 and older. This includes a minimum of 3 feet of distancing, face shields and other partitions, rapid pool testing and upgrading and maintaining of air ventilation systems.
Portable air systems were purchased for Greylock School so as not to overload its obsolete system and for rooms with no windows at Drury High. There are also plans for a vaccination clinic at Drury for students with parental approval.
Staff or students not feeling well — coughs, headaches, loss of smell, etc. — should not attend school.
Committee members asked about remote learning and the use of the Canvas learning app. Malkas said the school system would continue Canvas training to be prepared but would likely not be making separate accommodations for students and staff to be online.
The emphasis at both the federal and state level is to get kids back into the classrooms as in their best interest social, emotional and educational terms," she said.
The commissioner [of elementary and secondary education] has made it very clear since last April that the goal is full in-person learning," she said. "So the district would have to seek approval from the commissioner's office through the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education for any consideration of remote learning."
The policy approval was unanimous but the committee wanted more time to consider the remote meeting matter. Mayor Thomas Bernard, chairman of the School Committee, suggested virtual meetings be extended to January, when a new mayor and committee could decide if it wanted to continue.
Member Tara Jacobs, however, thought it a bit hypocritical for the committee to meet remote when it had just affirmed that students and staff would be back in classrooms.
"There's certainly issues of convenience factoring in meeting virtually, but here we are talking about state mandates, requiring our students and our staff to be meeting in school, in person," she said, adding, however, that she was uncomfortable returning to the second floor meeting room at City Hall.
Member Emily Daunis, who was appointed during the pandemic has only met remote, said she "found it to be immensely successful." She also felt it was much more accessible than in-person meetings, noting there were 30 attendees on Monday.
Bernard suggested City Council Chambers and noted that council has been meeting in person and wearing masks in the room. Malkas said she could look into alternative spaces in the schools that would accommodate the committee and visitors.
The motion was withdrawn and the matter tabled to September to gather more information.
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