Masks in Schools Debate Generates Heat at Meeting

With the Winthrop public schools ready to open for students on September 1, the Winthrop School Committee voted at their last meeting on August 16 for a mandatory requirement of facemasks for students in the K-6 grades and for students in grades 7-12 who do not provide proof of a vaccination.

The motion was approved after a stormy and long meeting in which some residents offered support for mandatory facemasks, others wanted voluntary face-masking, and School Committeeman Gus Martucci left the meeting in frustration before the vote.

“This is hypocrisy, ” said School Committeewoman Julie Barry before the vote.  “Our children can go to Fenway Park without being required to wear a mask, but they cannot go to our schools without a mask.”

The dilemma that was facing Superintendent Lisa Howard and other members seemed to be that there was no way of establishing accurate contact tracing if an outbreak did occur.  Howard noted that there is no remote learning plan available for students this year if they were forced to stay at home for an extended period of time because of an outbreak or quarantine. In addition, children under 12 cannot receive a vaccination.

Wading through what seemed to be conflicting recommendations from the Mass. Department of Elementary & Secondary Education (DESE), Howard outlined three options for students while in the school buildings: no mandates for face masks: universal mask-wearing regardless of whether a student is vaccinated; or a differentiated mask-wearing policy in which unvaccinated students must wear a mask and vaccinated students have a choice as to whether to wear a mask.

The last option was favored by Howard.

Following Howard’s remarks, the meeting was then opened up to a public comment period.  The committee listened to the comments from about 15 residents whose opinions either favored a mandatory mask mandate or a more relaxed policy.

”We should follow the guidelines and these guidelines say there is no requirement for mask-wearing among the vaccinated,” said Rob DeMarco.

On the other hand, another resident said, “This is not a hard decision, all people should wear masks regardless of vaccination status.”

“Stop scaring people. Masking has a detrimental effect,” former School Committeeman Todd Sacco said. “We have 71% percent of our population vaccinated. You are making a mountain out of a mole-hill.”

Several residents noted that it is not fair to compare Winthrop to surrounding communities such as Chelsea or Revere because Winthrop has a higher percentage of its population vaccinated.

“Make masks mandatory,” said Wendy Millar Page. “I caught COVID and now am living with some long-term effects. The masks will not be forever.  Let’s keep kids safe.”

School Committeewoman Suzanne Swope added, “The Delta variant is transmissible even for vaccinated children.  We need a mask mandate.”

Council President Philip Boncore noted, “Things could change in the town for the better or worse.”

School Committeewoman Jennifer Powell put forth the motion to follow the superintendent’s recommendation of a differentiated mask policy for all students, except for those who have a medical need.

Barry offered an amendment that that this policy be implemented for one month. The amendment was defeated 4 to 1. 

Howard, speaking before the vote on the motion, added, “I will review the data on a daily basis. We will tighten up or loosen up as we have to. There is an element of choice in this motion for parents.  We cannot control COVID. “

The motion then was approved 4 to 1.

However, the Winthrop School Committee’s policy may become moot in light of an anticipated mask-requirement by state education officials for all public school students regardless of vaccination status.

The State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted 9-1 this past Tuesday to give Commissioner Jeff Riley the authority to require masks in K-12 schools for the start of the school year. Riley has said the mandate he plans to impose will require all students and staff to wear masks indoors through Oct. 1. After that date, the commissioner’s policy would allow middle and high schools to lift the mask mandate for vaccinated students and staff only if the school meets an 80% vaccination rate.

Also on Tuesday, the 23,000-member American Federation of Teachers of Massachusetts released the following statement from AFT Massachusetts President Beth Kontos in response to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s vote to grant Riley the authority to issue a statewide indoor mask mandate for K-12 schools:

“The commissioner’s decision to require universal masking in schools when they reopen this fall is an important step to protect the health and safety of students, as well as their educators and families. While we remain concerned about the current plan to relax masking requirements for some students as soon as October 1, beginning the school year with universal masking will help maximize our ability to maintain safe, in-person learning for all students.

“We hope this long-overdue move will be followed by a similar requirement for air quality and HVAC standards to prevent the airborne spread of the virus in aging school buildings. We also continue to advocate for improvements to the state’s quarantine procedures, which currently exempt vaccinated students and staff from quarantine despite emerging evidence that they can still acquire and transmit the virus. With these steps, as well as continued state funding of diagnostic and pooled COVID-19 testing and in-school vaccination clinics for students and staff, we can accomplish our shared goal of keeping schools open this year for safe and productive in-person learning.”

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