School Committee approves face coverings policy for return to school

August 24, 2021 by Carol Britton Meyer

The School Committee unanimously approved a Hingham Public Schools face coverings policy last night (Aug. 23) to start off the new school year. It is effective immediately since sports tryouts and activities related to back to school are already taking place, including at the individual schools.

The policy requires that all individuals in public areas within school buildings and on school transportation wear face coverings, and also states that face coverings are not required when outdoors.

The goal is to provide and maintain a safe environment in the town's six schools during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which HPS administrators say is critical to returning students to a continuing "full-time classroom learning experience."

The Committee had an extensive discussion on a draft face coverings policy last week -- with input from the public -- and reviewed the policy again last night, making some changes.

Before the discussion began, Chair Kerry Ni noted that the Massachusetts Board of Education would be considering a request by Commissioner of Education Jeffrey Riley on Tuesday that he be granted the authority to mandate statewide the wearing of masks for all K-12 public school students, educators, and staff to start off the new school year.

The mandate would be in effect until at least Oct. 1 in order to provide time to increase the vaccination rate in the schools.

There was a general consensus among committee members that rather than wait to see what the outcome of the Board of Education-Riley discussion would be, to move ahead with further considering and voting on the HPS policy since school-related activities are already occurring.  The HPS policy actually goes further than the one proposed by Riley because it includes pre-K students.

The HPS policy is based on guidance from public health experts -- the Centers for Disease Control; the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education; the Massachusetts Department of Public Health; and the Hingham Health Department.

In addition to the portions of the new policy outlined above, face coverings are not required when appropriate (to be determined) social distancing is enforced, including during mask breaks, while eating or drinking, or during physical education classes.

Committee member Michelle Ayer summed up the overarching goal:  "trying to maintain a sense of normalcy while keeping our students safe, with a mask policy in place."

There are some exceptions to this policy for those who have medical, behavioral or another challenge that makes it unsafe to wear a face mask or face covering.

Families are to provide students' masks/face coverings, but disposable masks will be available for individuals who arrive at a building or board school transportation without one.

Language in the policy addresses students, staff, and visitors who are in violation of the face coverings policy, which will remain in place until rescinded by the School Committee and will be reviewed following release of new DESE requirements/guidance and on a regular basis as needed.

Prior to the vote, two parents advocated for mandatory vaccinations for HPS teachers following the FDA's granting Pfizer and BioNTech full approval of their Covid-19 vaccine in the United States yesterday.

In light of that news, Joseph King asked whether HPS teachers will now be required to get vaccinated. "I don't think that's too much to ask," he said, prefacing his remarks by stating that he is a strong advocate for parent choice with regard to whether HPS students should wear face masks in school.

Lauren Burm also advocated for mandated teacher vaccinations.

Ni said the committee -- which has received numerous communications about face masks and other issues -- is taking this public input into consideration.

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