October 20, 2021 By Carol Britton Meyer
Software recently purchased by the Hingham Public Schools will help the district collect accurate vaccination data on students as it relates to the face mask mandate issued by Commissioner of Education Jeffrey Riley last August.
The software should be up and running within about a week and a half, according to Interim Supt. of Schools Gary Maestas.
"The software ties in directly with the state vaccination data base," he reported to the School Committee Monday night. "This will help us get an accurate number" on how many students who are eligible to get vaccinated have done so. "We're working with the Hingham Education Association regarding the teacher piece," Maestas said.
The mandate -- which initially required all K-12 public schools students ages five and older, educators, staff, and visitors to wear face masks when inside school buildings until at least Oct. 1 in order to provide time to increase the vaccination rate in those buildings -- was recently extended until Nov. 1 or later, at Riley's discretion.
The commissioner’s initial policy called for allowing middle and high schools to potentially lift the mask mandate for vaccinated students and staff only after Oct. 1 if they reached a certain vaccination threshold – that at least 80 percent of students and staff, combined, in a school building are vaccinated.
"Department of Elementary & Secondary Education guidance has an off-ramp for schools with an 80 percent vaccination [rate among students and staff]," School Committee Chair Kerry Ni said Monday night. "We're not there yet. We're still working through the logistics."
Maestas reported that as of last week, seven students had tested positive for COVID-19 -- three at East School, three at Plymouth River, and one at Hingham High School, with one faculty member testing positive at the high school.
Tracing of close contacts revealed that "most of these infections are coming from home --not school," Maestas said. As a result, parents are being asked to carefully monitor the home situation before sending their children to school.
With regard to vaccinations, Maestas noted that while some students get vaccinated when they are eligible to do so, others haven't been vaccinated yet and may or may not get vaccinated in the future.
Once the most up-to-date vaccination data has been collected, Maestas said he will report back to the School Committee and then share the information with the general public.
Ni asked for fellow committee members' views on the subject. Nes Correnti feels that until five to 11-year-olds are eligible to be vaccinated, the mask policy should remain in place.
Tim Miller-Dempsey and a couple of other committee members asked if the volunteer committee of experts that weighed into the earlier School Committee discussion about setting a HPS mask policy before school opened and prior to Riley issuing the mandate could be reconvened to weigh in on this issue. Maestas said he would look into that possibility. "There are so many moving pieces," Miller-Dempsey said.
Member Michelle Ayer agreed that would be a good idea, if possible. "We don't want to make a misstep," she said. "Our schools have been doing well [with the number of COVID-19 cases], and part of that is because we have safety protocols in place. We don't want a bunch of kids having to be quarantined because they weren't wearing face masks."
Member Liza O'Reilly suggested considering what surrounding communities are doing as part of the committee's consideration of the subject. She noted that the Hopkinton school district reached the 80 percent milestone and still decided to maintain a face mask requirement, at least for now.
Maestas said he has received a few phone calls from parents who are concerned that if the threshold is met and the Hingham School Committee decides to subsequently lift the mask mandate at schools that may meet that requirement, only students and teachers who are unvaccinated would still be required to wear face masks under Riley's mandate.
"These parents are saying that right now their children feel comfortable wearing face masks [because everyone else is also required to] -- but for those students who are not vaccinated and will not be vaccinated, there's a level of growing anxiety that they don't want to stand out as different from their classmates. They don't want anyone to know they're unvaccinated due to the level of pressure."
Maestas went on to say that there are "a lot of reasons why some parents aren't getting their kids vaccinated, and that's their business, but didn't realize until after talking with them that some kids cannot focus [on their schoolwork] because of the anxiety level [they are feeling]."
Ni also heard from some parents about this issue and wonders how any such a policy would be enforced by teachers and staff.
"It's almost unenforceable," Maestas said, indicating that while he's not trying "to absolve anyone from their responsibility," being called upon to enforce such a policy would add yet another layer of responsibility to teachers and staff. "I'm concerned that they would spend [a lot of ] their time monitoring [who is required to wear face masks or not]."
Ni wondered, "Is it worth it if such stress would be put on students and teachers?"
This will be an ongoing discussion," she said. "It's good to start thinking and talking about it."