By Curt Peterson
Local school district boards have been scrambling after the state announced last Thursday, March 3, that new guidelines would stop advising mandatory masking within school buildings after March 14.
The new guidelines came out just three days after the state’s previous guidelines (setting an 80% vaccination theshold for schools to unmask) went into effect.
Windsor Central Superintendent Sherry Sousa relayed the district’s intent to comply with the newest guidelines during the March 7 virtual board meeting, which inspired passionate debate among board members.
If “voluntary masking” becomes the rule, it will be universal — although in specific buildings, Sousa said, certain precautions, such as non-communal dining, might remain.
Anna Sessa (Reading) pointed out that kids under 5 years old aren’t eligible for vaccines yet, and mingle with older kids in school settings. She suggested keeping the mandatory masking rule in effect for all elementary schools.
Todd Ulman (Woodstock), who said he has two “munchkins” in the system, agreed with Sessa, and urged Sousa to keep mandatory masking in place. “I think making it voluntary at this time is a disservice to the community,” he said. “We would be jumping the gun.”
Patricia “PJ” Eames (Woodstock), however, was adamantly in favor of eliminating the mask mandate. “Masking takes a psychological toll on my elementary school kids,” she said, adding that the district has followed CDC and state guidance so far, and to go against their advice at this time “makes no sense.”
Later Eames warned there might be legal consequences for failing to follow official guidelines, which she feels causes emotional stress on younger kids by making them feel responsible for illness and death of others.
Jim Haff (Killington) pointed out that of the 607 deaths in the past 24 months, 131 of them have been in the last two month— so 22% of the state’s deaths have occurred recently — that clearly indicates the pandemic is far from “over,” he said. Haff added that Killington Elementary School’s vaccination rate is under 50% (with many of the 25 pre-K students not yet 5 and therefore uneligible).
“Voluntary masking just doesn’t cut it,” he said. “We have over a hundred kids in the pre-Kindergarten program who can’t be vaccinated, and they are vulnerable.”
Dr. Elliot Rubin (Bridgewater), a pediatrician, agreed with Haff, pointing out masks are more important for protecting others than the wearer.
Younger kids may not be as susceptible to fatal Covid infections, but they may live with elderly grandparents or immune-compromised individuals whom they can give the virus.
In the middle-high school, where high vaccination rates allow voluntary masking, Sousa said mask-wearing is between 50-50 and 60-40, the lower figure being the kids wearing masks.
Adam Ameele (Reading), who is director of behavioral health services at Springfield Health Center, and Bill Overbay (Pomfret) both described possible peer influence within a voluntary masking environment – Ameele warned kids might unmask to feel part of the crowd, and Overbay fears “shaming” by unmasked kids.
Gwen Hagenbarth (Killington) said there is also shaming by masked kids of those who aren’t.
Katie Burke the school nurse at the middle/high school, and Covid coordinator for the district, said the hierarchy among guidance providers will change March 14 — schools have been getting direction from the Agency of Education and the Department of Health (DoH) but the latter will become sole source.
The three student representatives, Genevieve Morel (senior), Owen Courcey and Aiden Keough-Vella (both freshmen), gave mature and thoughtful presentations from their peers’ point of view.
Morel, who says she doesn’t wear a mask now that vaccination rates have lifted the mandate in her environment, said quite a few students and teachers were continuing to wear them.
Of 30 students he queried, Courcey said, the majority are concerned about lifting the mandate, while admitting those whom he asked share his own “biases.”
Keough-Vella said the administration provided an effective presentation that emphasized safety in the school, and a respect for the safety concerns of others.
Haff reminded the board that Sousa was given the authority to make Covid-related decisions on her own, and the final determination is up to her.
Sousa told the Mountain Times she will discuss the issue with her management team again, and intends to announce her final decision later this week.