A mask requirement for students returning to the Monomoy schools isn’t just a means of controlling the person-to-person spread of COVID-19. School officials say it’s an incentive for students, faculty and staff to get vaccinated as soon as they’re eligible.
The Monomoy school committee approved the mask mandate last week as part of its school reopening plan. While the requirement for face coverings drew vocal criticism from some when Superintendent Scott Carpenter proposed it several weeks ago, similar policies are now in place for all public schools in the state.
“A lot’s changed” since he first proposed the face covering rule, Carpenter told the school board. Last Wednesday, the state education commissioner issued an emergency order requiring all public K-12 students and teachers to wear masks through Oct. 1 to give time for more people to get vaccinated. After Oct. 1, if 80 percent of students and staff in a district have been fully vaccinated, middle and high schools would be allowed to lift the mask mandate for those who are vaccinated. Students, teachers and staff members who are not fully inoculated would still be required to wear masks.
Also, the FDA recently issued full approval for the Pfizer vaccine, and approval of the Moderna vaccine is expected to follow soon.
“I’m hoping that that becomes one less barrier that some have” to getting vaccinated, Carpenter said. The end goal is to boost vaccination rates “so that we can get to that 80 percent threshold and start to see things get to normal more quickly,” he said.
Students who cannot wear masks for medical reasons will be encouraged to wear face shields. But for all others, masks will be a requirement, and students who repeatedly decline to wear one will be disciplined and sent home.
“This was not an issue last year,” Carpenter said. Some students needed an occasional reminder, but none were disciplined for not wearing a mask, he said.
Kids will not be required to wear masks outdoors or during certain elective classes, “for instance, if you are playing a musical instrument like a clarinet, flute or trumpet,” Carpenter said.
Speaking in Everett Monday, state Secretary of Education James Peyser said the statewide mask mandate “is designed to help ensure that we have a smooth opening of school without any confusion or ambiguity about the health protocols.” But more importantly, the mask mandate is designed to reinforce the need for vaccines.
“The only way we’re going to put COVID behind us is through vaccinations,” Peyser said.
The mask requirement is one part of Carpenter’s reopening plan, which also specifies procedures for testing students. The goal, he said, is to increase in-person learning with fewer students needing to isolate at home. At Monomoy, students will be sent home if they show symptoms, but if they are asymptomatic but are a close contact of someone who’s been infected, they are eligible to take part in the state’s “test and stay” program. Before classes, students take a 15-minute COVID test, and they can remain in classes if they test negative. After five days of negative results, the daily tests are no longer required.
When determining what constitutes a “close contact,” Monomoy is using the CDC guidance of having spent 15 minutes out of a day within six feet of an infected person. That standard is higher than the one suggested by state education officials, which exempts students who have been at least three feet apart in a classroom where both parties are masked.
Carpenter said he believes that, in an effort to return kids to classrooms, the state adopted a definition that omits some people who would be considered close contacts under federal guidelines. “You literally have to be sitting on each other’s lap for more than 15 minutes to be considered a close contact” under state guidelines, he said.
Entrances to the Monomoy schools have already been marked with signs reading “face masks required.” School committee member Danielle Tolley asked what happens if someone willfully disobeys the rule, as some people did in a recent school committee meeting. Carpenter said if the situation escalates, the violator will be asked to leave, and will eventually be considered to be trespassing if they do not. Police were present at the meeting in question, “and if the committee had wanted to create a flashpoint between certain individuals, they could have asked the police to intervene,” Carpenter said.
School committee member Joseph Auciello noted that the Archdiocese of Boston recently required masks in its parochial schools, which should help persuade some people who oppose the mask requirement.
“I’m hoping that the weight of public opinion will suppress the fervor of the extreme patriotic dissent, where ‘no mask’ means you’re a real American,” he said.
Last year, some parents opted for remote learning for their children specifically so they would not have to wear masks, school committee member Tina Games said. That is not an option this year, Carpenter said. Parents who decline to have their children wear masks may opt for home-schooling.
“That is an option,” he said. But because of the statewide mandate, mask opponents won’t likely be shopping for a new school district.
“It’s not like you’re going to School Choice to Nauset and find something different there,” he said.
Email Alan Pollock at firstname.lastname@example.org