Nauset Schools To Make Town-by-town Decisions
When they return to classes Monday after winter break, students in the Monomoy Regional School District could opt to leave their face masks at home. While they’re still required on school buses, in nurse’s offices and for students returning from COVID-19 quarantine, masks will be optional in Monomoy classrooms starting Feb. 28.
In the Nauset district, which spans four towns, school officials are drafting a mask-optional plan that defers to orders from each town’s health board, with the goal of having a policy in place by March 14.
At its meeting last week, the Monomoy school committee heard a recommendation by Superintendent Scott Carpenter that the district wait two weeks after the end of vacation before deciding whether to lift its mask mandate. But school committee members received an avalanche of emails on the topic, largely from parents eager to do away with the mask requirement on Feb. 28, the first day state officials are allowing districts to do so. A large crowd of parents also attended the meeting.
“Over the past two years, our children have shouldered the burden of keeping the community and schools safe,” said Heather Brown, parent of a Monomoy Middle School student. Adding a two-week delay makes no sense, she said. “How do you know how many cases will be prevented by delaying it two weeks? The option should be left in the parents’ capable hands,” Brown said. Brown and many others who spoke did not wear a mask at the podium, in defiance of the school committee’s rules.
Leah Mercurio of Harwich, who has three children in the district, said the time has come to remove the mask mandate. “Enough is enough,” she said. There has been a massive rise in suicidal tendencies and mental health problems in the last two years, and while some of that is attributable to the pandemic itself, “masks absolutely play a large part,” she said.
The district’s nursing lead, Cheryl Dufault, spoke on behalf of the Monomoy school nurses in supporting Carpenter’s plan to wait two additional weeks before making masks optional, “to ensure that our COVID cases do not spike after travel.” But the nurses agree that the mandate needs to be lifted. “We feel that we are at a point where we need to learn to live with COVID,” Dufault said.
School committee member Terry Russell of Harwich praised the district’s leadership and the nurses for helping the district navigate the pandemic “far better than many, many schools on the Cape.” But given declining case numbers, Russell said he agrees with making masks optional starting immediately after winter break.
But committee member Jessica Rogers of Chatham said she agrees with the nurses that it would be prudent to wait two more weeks after vacation.
“My family got caught up in the spike after the last vacation,” she said.
“We’re all fatigued,” committee member Sharon Stout of Harwich said, but it makes sense to wait two additional weeks “to give all of this time to die down.”
But others felt it made no sense for the Monomoy district to uphold a mask mandate when the health boards in both Chatham and Harwich voted to lift mask mandates for town-owned buildings. Parent Vanessa Adams of Chatham said the night before the school committee meeting, she was at a youth basketball game at the town’s community center where no one was wearing masks. “Those same children had to go to school today wearing a mask,” she noted.
Committee member Danielle Tolley of Chatham shared that viewpoint. With both towns having lifted their own mask mandates, “it does feel pretty hypocritical,” she said. As the parent of young children, Tolley said she shares concerns about youngsters lagging in language development and social cues because they can’t see others’ faces.
Harwich committee member Tina Games has a daughter who graduated Monomoy and is now at college, recovering from her second bout of COVID, despite having been fully vaccinated and boosted. “And she said, ‘Mom, I’m so over this.’ And I’m over it too,” Games said.
School committee Chair Meredith Henderson of Harwich, an educator and mother of two Monomoy students, said she knows that masks are a struggle both for children and for teachers. “It’s been a long two years,” she said. Henderson said that while COVID is still happening, with the district’s COVID testing protocols “and our amazing nursing staff, we will keep our thumb on that.”
With Rogers and Stout abstaining, the rest of the Monomoy School Committee voted to lift the mask mandate as of Feb. 28, to loud applause from the gallery.
Tolley urged parents to remind their children to accept their peers who continue to wear masks, particularly given the political nature of the mask debate. “I think that’s really important,” she said, since continuing to wear face coverings is the best choice for some families.
Following a meeting of its joint school committee last week, the Nauset district sent a mask update to the entire school community on Feb. 17. Superintendent of Schools Brooke Clenchy reminded parents that lifting the mandate isn’t as simple in Nauset as it would be in a one-town school district.
“We consist of five uniquely different districts and Union 54 under the umbrella of the Nauset Public Schools. It’s important that each of the four elementary and the Regional (which consists of the middle and high school) districts are able to retain their autonomy where possible, and that the pathway allows the ability for each community to be able to make informed decisions on mask options, which may be different from their neighboring communities,” Clenchy wrote.
On the advice of legal counsel, the district will be fast-tracking a new mask policy with the goal of having it in place by March 14, she said.
“The new policy will designate the decision-making regarding mask-mandate/optional masking to the Superintendent working in collaboration with the NPS Nurse Leader and local Boards of Health,” the superintendent wrote. The goal is for each community to retain local control. “For example, should Wellfleet experience a surge, we could operationally put a shorter, temporary mask-mandate back into place immediately if we are mask optional, without having to bring together a school committee for an emergency meeting. At the same time all other communities could remain mask optional,” Clenchy said.
“We recognize that each of our community Boards of Health will be meeting to review their current policies, particularly in light of newly released guidance on Monday, Feb. 14th. We acknowledge that the Board of Health may make a decision that could be different than ours, and their decision would supersede all else, which is currently the case.” The policy will allow the district to act quickly while allowing towns to retain some autonomy.
“We ask for your continued patience as we work to move this to the ‘finish line,’” she wrote.