School Committee to decide masking policy for new school year; ‘Test and stay’ model to be implemented

Hingham Middle School (photo by Joshua Ross Photography)

August 20, 2021 by Carol Britton Meyer

The Hingham Public Schools district is committed to providing a safe environment in all six schools during the ongoing pandemic in order to return students to a continuous full-time classroom learning experience.
The in-person learning mode is mandated by the commissioner of education, and no remote learning is allowed.

Nearly 240 people participated in Thursday night's School Committee meeting concerning developing a face mask policy for the 2021-2022 school year besides Committee members and representatives of the newly-formed HPS COVID task force, who shared their recommendations and thoughts on the controversial issue.

Their recommendation includes in part an indoor face mask requirement for all students, teachers, and other staff. (See details below.)  Many on the call weighed in on both sides of the issue.

"The goal is to provide a safe and healthy education while keeping students engaged in in-person learning," School Committee Chair Kerry Ni said. "We encourage community engagement [regarding the face mask issue]. We realize there's passion about this issue, and we respect the rights of parents to advocate for what they think is best for their families."

Once a decision is made, some people will be happy,  and others will be unhappy. "We'll then have to move forward as a district, and divisiveness [is not helpful]. It's important to understand other people's viewpoints," Ni said.

At the same time, Interim Supt. Gary Maestas explained the Department of Education "Test and stay" model that will be implemented in the new school year,  regardless of a mask/no-mask decision. Parental consent is required for a student to participate.

This model is designed to keep students in school until they test positive. If an unmasked student tests positive in the classroom, all those who are unmasked will be quarantined, for example.

"The purpose of this program is to try to minimize disruptions in school, [providing an alternative to] kids going to a local pharmacy for a COVID test," Maestas said.

There are many other details, which will be shared with parents in the near future.

In addition,  HPS will participate in a COVID pool testing protocol similar to the one implemented during the past school year.

With regard to sports, Maestas said school administrators "are working to have a typical season, with guidance for mask protocol by sport to be forthcoming."

Many public comments on both sides

Comments -- a couple of which were filled with emotion -- reflected both sides of the issue and related to putting the best interests of the overall community in front of personal preferences, concerns about potential quarantining if face masks aren't required, the importance of taking the lead from health experts, a preference by some parents for optional masking, stories about the negative impacts wearing face masks has had on some children, the importance of being able to see students' and teachers faces and to be able to communicate without wearing a face mask, and other issues.

Along the lines of helping to keep students and staff safe, the newly-created  COVID Health and Education Task Force convened by Maestas recommended to the School Committee Thursday night during a three-hour remote meeting that at least for the start of the new school year, all pre-K through grade 12 students, faculty, staff, and administration should wear face masks while indoors and on school buses, in all school buildings -- including nurses' offices -- and during all school-related events and activities, including sports.

The Committee will vote on a final Hingham Public Schools mask policy at their Monday (Aug. 23) meeting, taking into consideration the recommendations of the task force and following Thursday night's discussion of its own draft policy -- which also calls for face masks to be worn "by all individuals in public areas within school buildings and on school transportation" and for face masks to be worn outside when social distancing cannot be observed. There are some exceptions.

The policy, once adopted, will be reviewed every four weeks or as necessary and is subject to collective bargaining with the Hingham Education Association.

Favors optional mask policy

Parent Julie Donovan would like to see an optional mask policy put into place. "Our school system promotes inclusivity, and I think the topic of masks should be part of that," she said. "Some will choose to wear them and others won't. The issue isn't going away, so this is a good opportunity for everyone to respect individual decisions [regarding face masks]."

Nandita Scott, who is a physician, expressed a different view . "Delta is here, and we can't live in fear of our kids getting sick," she said. "Even one death in a community like Hingham would be unconscionable. This is about more than individual rights; it's about what is right for the [entire] community."

Susan O'Horo, who is also a physician, feels differently. "We can't live in fear -- the risk out there from COVID has been very much politicized," she said. "This isn't to negate hundreds of thousands of deaths [from COVID], but the risk to kids is very small."

Mask mandate advocated

Primary care physician Scott Cullen spoke in favor of a mask mandate. "We have to respect the science," he said. "I think it's very clear that an optional mask policy wouldn't be helpful. My five-year-old daughter will be starting school this fall, and she will be wearing a face mask."

Michelle Maguire said there is insufficient data to support a face mask requirement. "Masks inhibit communication and social development," she said. "I'm thinking about my two daughters if they are mandated to wear something over their faces. I don't want this to lead to them feeling isolated at lunch, just staring at the walls."

Former Select Board Chair Mary Power, noting that COVID is a "changing situation," said in part that she believes any policy should include metrics.

Drew Wallace said that parents have "a legal right to opt [their children] out of wearing face masks. There are numerous exemptions, including religious and behavioral -- I suggest parents [contact] their school principals and teachers stating that their kids will not wear masks and find an exemption that's suitable for their child. We need more data, and I encourage parents to stick up for themselves. They do have rights."

An incoming eighth-grader at Hingham Middle School said that face masks "are the best-known way to eliminate the spread of COVID. If someone doesn't want to wear a mask, they won't. If we don't mandate masks now, it will happen sometime in the future," she predicted.

The School Committee also shared their thoughts about the task force's recommendation, overall leaning toward making the Committee's draft policy the final one.

5,000 students and staff returning to school

"This policy will create a great defense for the start of the school year," member Liza O'Reilly said. "We're getting ready to put 5,000 students and staff back in the school buildings in a couple of weeks, and we have to do everything we can to start the year as safely as possible and to evolve as the year goes on."

Member Tim Dempsey said he, like other members of the committee, has been looking for evidence indicating that unmasking is safe. "I've read every email we've received and turned over every rock [trying to find evidence of that]. I'm a teacher myself, and nothing about [requiring face masks] is fair -- they're uncomfortable -- but I'm not finding [that evidence]."

Until recently, member Carlos Da Silva said he could have gone either way in his consideration of whether to require face masks. However, he explained, "COVID is not over. This is about the children, teachers, and staff, who deserve to go to school without worrying about getting sick. We need to provide a safe and healthy education."

Ni favors being on the cautious side rather than taking a wait and see approach "or crossing our fingers and hoping everything will be fine."

The overall goal, member Michelle Ayer said, is "no masks, but we have to keep our students and staff safe."

DESE and other guidance considered

As background, decisions related to health and safety measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in school have been left to individual communities based on local data, according to a recent joint Massachusetts Department of Elementary & Secondary Education and Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

The School Committee relied on guidance and recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control, DESE, the MDPH, and the Hingham Health Department in drafting its policy.

The task force was convened to provide policy recommendations based on the lived experiences of medical, educational, and operational experts within the Hingham community.

The team reviewed local Department of Public Health data on COVID positivity rates, examined vaccination rates within the community, and discussed a number of scholarly articles on the issue of masks and general mitigation measures and all of these variables in relation to the DESE mandate to return to in-person learning.

"We will work with individual families to address specific issues related to mask wearing," Maestas said.

COVID task force members include Maestas; Dr. Katy Donovan, Infectious Disease Epidemiologist; Rick Swanson, Hingham High School Principal; Mary Eastwood, South Elementary School Principal; John Ferris, Director of Business and Support Services for Hingham Public Schools; Tim O’Neill, Public Health Policy Professional; Dr. Katie McBrine, Pediatrician; Dr. Jeremy Warhaftig, Pediatrician; Susan Sarni, Executive Health Officer for the Town of Hingham; and Diane Eikinas, Elementary Teacher, Hingham Public Schools.

Donovan noted, "We're all tired and frustrated [by COVID]. Nobody is more upset than I and my public health colleagues that we are back in this place. It's difficult because the guidance keeps changing because the science keeps changing."

Regarding comments about whether face masks are effective or not, Donovan is of the opinion that they do work in preventing COVID transmission. "I believe there was limited transmission in the schools last year due to masking requirements and other protocols."

Dempsey said he has listened to people talking about the masking issue for some time and that some people don't feel comfortable expressing their opinion. "There are good arguments on both sides," he said. "I don't think anyone needs to rake people over the coals on social media about this issue. Nothing is more important than in-person learning, and this year can bring us all together. Time's up! We need to get back together as a community."

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