EASTON – Students and staff at Easton Public Schools will be required to wear masks this fall.
The policy – the same one that was in place when students returned to face-to-face classes last spring – will continue when the school opens on September 1.
“We don’t recommend changing what we were doing when the school closed in the spring,” said school superintendent Lisha Cabral. “We have two goals for this year. One is the health and safety of all students and staff. The second comes from what we heard loud and clear from parents across the district in the spring that students need to go back to school as much as possible.
Cabral and the school committee unanimously supported the continuation of the mask policy in a virtual meeting on August 17, in which parents spoke out for and against wearing the mask.
Since the Easton committee met, state education commissioner Jeffrey C. Riley has asked the Council for Elementary and Secondary Education to grant him the power to mandate masks for all. Kindergarten to Grade 12 students, educators and public staff through October 1 to ensure safe schools fully reopen. and to give more students and educators time to get vaccinated.
Until now, each district was free to define its own policy.
“However, the Education Commissioner and Governor have since advertised and expressed concern about the Delta variant and cases of children with COVID in the Commonwealth,” Cabral said on August 23.
After October 1, the policy would allow middle and high schools to lift the mandatory mask for vaccinated students and staff only if the school achieves a certain vaccination rate – at least 80% of students and staff in a school building are vaccinated. Unvaccinated students and staff would still be required to wear masks.
The state board was due to vote on August 24, after which the school committee planned to review its guidelines and finalize its mask policy at its August 25 meeting.
At the August 17 meeting, Cabral said the recommendation followed discussions with school nurses management, school unions and Easton’s director of health and community services, Kristin Kennedy.
Easton’s board of health voted unanimously on Aug. 9 to pass a statement that it agrees with the Centers for Disease Control’s guidelines for masks for kindergarten to grade 12 students.
“The CDC says very strongly that masks should be worn by all people in the school environment,” Kennedy said.
COVID cases on the rise
Cabral said the recommendation for masks at school is also driven by the increase in COVID cases in Easton and Bristol counties.
As of August 12, 41 Easton residents have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past two weeks, according to the State Department of Public Health. Since the start of the pandemic, 2,256 Easton residents have tested positive for COVID.
“Every county in Massachusetts is either high or has a substantial level of transmission for COVID,” Cabral said. “Bristol County is currently high.”
Easton finally reached a two-week COVID-free period on July 10, Kennedy said. However, the following week six cases were reported and the following two week periods saw more than double the reported cases.
Cabral and members of the school committee said they had received countless emails from parents and the community and thanked them for their contribution.
“Other than some emails from parents, everyone universally recommended that we wear the mask when we get back to school,” Cabral said. “The emails I received were overwhelmingly in favor of universal mask wear. “
Those who opposed the masks have voiced objections, including that children are not at as much risk as adults, that there have been no cases of COVID transmission at school in Easton, and that the masks are hot and uncomfortable and hinder social interactions.
Responding to concerns about the impact of masks on students, Cabral said several students had social and emotional issues last year.
“None have been reported to be caused by wearing the mask,” she said. “Much, far too much was due to social isolation, lack of a consistent schedule, not leaving home.”
Some questioned the knowledge of the administration to recommend the wearing of the mask.
“We take our advice from medical experts,” Cabral said.
Parents also asked when students would be allowed to go without a mask.
“Our goal is to keep everyone safe and to reassess the situation if necessary,” Cabral said.
Some parents have asked if they don’t want their children to wear a mask.
There are medical and religious exemptions for wearing a mask, but Cabral said they were very rare and last year the district had no medical exemptions.
By requiring masks from all students and staff regardless of their immunization status, the district will maintain student anonymity.
“We don’t want students to be publicly asked to put on their masks because they are not vaccinated,” she said.
“And as we have taught our children, wearing a mask is not necessarily a personal choice, it is our civic responsibility in a social contract with each other, to protect our most vulnerable”, Cabral said. “And we have vulnerable people, including children and medically compromised and elderly staff.
“And we have to keep our commitment to keep everyone safe, so our children can go to school.”
Another factor is that 80 to 90% of a group must be vaccinated to be effective in mitigating the spread of COVID, Cabral said.
Some 95 percent of staff at Easton Public School are vaccinated and 58 percent of students aged 12 to 17 are vaccinated, she said. However, there is currently no vaccine available for children under 12 years old.
Other security measures in place
In addition to requiring masks, schools will maintain a social distancing of 3 feet as much as possible and schools will continue to have additional electrostatic sprays, hand sanitizers and masks available.
Students will continue to be outdoors as much as possible for lunch, physical education, singing or instrument lessons. No mask is compulsory outside.
Masks will be compulsory on the buses.
The administration is also advertising to hire nurses for additional help in schools and to help with contact tracing.
The administration was waiting to hear advice from the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association on fall indoor sports, but the day after the meeting, on August 18, the MIAA board declined to provide further advice. to schools on the issue of wearing masks at sporting events for the upcoming fall season, leaving it to individual school districts instead.
The administration is still working on quarantine protocols for vaccinated and unvaccinated students and is considering adopting a “Test and Stay” program that uses rapid COVID antigen testing. The tests are free, but the administration seeks state assistance to fund staff to administer them.
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A caller asked how the community can help schools. Cabral said the district is in dire need of substitute teachers and encouraged people to apply.
“We need our kids at school,” said school deputy superintendent Christine Pruitt. “We learned about it last year. We want to do everything we can to make sure our children are in school. “
The DESE commissioner said e-learning will not count towards the time spent on the learning requirements that each district must meet, so virtual classrooms are not an option this year, Pruitt said.
If a district or school has to close due to COVID cases, those days will need to be made up just like snow days.
When students need to self-quarantine, their absences will be excused and teachers will provide them with makeup work.
“Extended absences are something they have experience with,” Cabral said.
“I looked at what’s going on in the country and this Delta variant,” said Jacqueline Weisman, a member of the school committee. “It’s scary for me who has a child who is too young to be vaccinated. We are examining thousands of students and staff quarantined in other states.
“We don’t know what to expect from this variant. In order to keep our children in school and to ensure the safety of children and staff and to minimize disruption by quarantining large groups, we are currently using all mitigation strategies available to us.
“I believe we should have universal masking in our schools. “
School committee members Michelle Durrance, Nancy DeLuca, Caroline O’Neill and Jennifer Starr also said they supported the masking even though no votes were needed.
“It’s a lot more dangerous for everyone, including kids,” O’Neill said of the Delta variant. “Pediatric intensive care beds in the South are at full capacity in many states and there is no reason to believe Massachusetts will be spared.”
“It was not planned, not planned,” said Pruitt. “We were thrilled to see the end of it all and here we are again. Our hearts are breaking because of all of this. There is nothing more we want than to have COVID for our students and staff. “
State House News Service contributed to this report.
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