Health board, schools expect to comply with DESE mask mandate

Gregory St. Lawrence speaks to the potential social-emotional impacts to children that could be caused by masks at a Board of Health meeting on Aug. 24. Staff Photo/Max Bowen
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Parents say children’s mental and physical health at risk from masks

It was a divided audience at a recent Board of Health meeting where parents lined up, many to speak against a statewide mask mandate for public schools.

On Tuesday, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) voted 9-1 to authorize Commissioner of Education Jeff Riley to authorize a mask mandate for all public school students over the age of 5. The mandate would also apply to faculty and visitors. On Oct. 1 the mandate would be revisited for schools that had achieved an 80 percent vaccination rate.

Officials speak on mandate, COVID cases

Superintendent John Antonucci said that he expects the schools will comply with the mandate and extend it to pre-kindergarten classes. He added that social distancing is not in the mandate and so lunch could happen as normal with mask breaks given during the day. When asked about the impact to fall sports, Antonucci doesn’t expect one for the outdoor games, but that it could be for indoor sports such as volleyball.

Schools can run as normal with the exception of masks,” he said at the Aug. 24 Board of Health meeting.

North Attleborough currently has a COVID positivity rate of 4.08 percent. At 5 percent, the Department of Public Health would label the town a Red community. Since August began nearly 100 new cases in North Attleborough have been reported.

School District Nurse Coordinator Melissa Badger said two types of testing will be offered. The first is the same as what has been done since the pandemic began. The second, called Test and Stay, is for those with close contact with a COVID patient. This would be done each day over a 10-day period and as long as no symptoms presented, the student could remain in class.

School Committee Chair Ethan Hamilton said the response to the rising COVID cases should be a measured one. He added those most vulnerable will be protected and parents can make their own decisions.

At 4 percent, it’s just not high enough,” he said.

Board of Health member John Donahue spoke to the town’s vaccination rate of 59 percent, that it is far too low when compared to neighboring towns, which are as high as 70 percent. He said that while residents over the age of 75 are 92 percent vaccinated and those 65-75 years old are 87 percent vaccinated, the younger age brackets are only at 40 percent. Donahue said that with most of the seniors now protected against COVID, the majority of the cases are in the younger demographics. He said that of the current infected cases, eight are children age 12 and under.

By doing this mask mandate we can put a stop to this,” said Donahue. “We want our students to be able to enjoy a full school year without having virtual classes. We have to be smart about how we handle this. This delta variant is very dangerous.”

Following the discussion, the Board of Health voted unanimously to require a mask mandate for the schools to begin on Aug. 31. If DESE issues its own mask mandate, this would supersede the board’s vote.

Parents question the need for masks

At the meeting, held at Town Hall in the Lower Level Conference Room, nearly every seat was occupied by a parent and many more watched upstairs on a television. Amanda McCabe spoke to the ineffectiveness of most masks at blocking the COVID-19 virus and that small gaps at the corners of the mask and near the nose could potentially allow respiratory droplets to get in. Speaking to her experience as a healthcare professional who served on a COVID task force, she said only the N95 mask could provide proper protection.

Double-blind studies are better than cherry-picking the town’s data,” said McCabe. “I don’t feel I have to follow the mandate.”

Others, like Keith Hobson, were skeptical of the legality of the mandate. Hobson said he had been to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education web site and could find no evidence that health-related matters are under their purview.

You’re appointed, but you still represent the taxpayer,” said Hobson to the board. “What I saw of the (BESE) board members is that they didn’t care and were willing to pass authority to the commissioner.”

Town Council President Justin Pare—speaking on his behalf and not for the council—said that he does not agree with the mandate. He said that knowing the most vulnerable have been vaccinated puts his mind at ease. Pare said that he understands the concern, but the response needs to be a measured one, and felt that hospitalizations and deaths are the bigger indicators. He added that a town-wide mask mandate could negatively impact the town’s businesses.

We need to look at the surrounding communities,” he said. “I’m pretty sure more of them are not imposing mask mandates.”

Robert Fitch said he could not be cavalier with the health of the children and waiting until the situation becomes more serious is too much of a risk. He said that it wasn’t his own health he was concerned with so much as that of the children.

We’ve got to be the guiding light,” he said. “We’ve got to do this to help each other.”

Christina Roderick has two children in the town’s schools. She questioned how it can be safe for people to be in the schools now, but that masks will be needed in a week’s time. She also gestured to the people in the room, many of whom were unmasked. She told the board that the National Institute of Health had published many studies showing the children were among a small percentage of those hospitalized with COVID.

I don’t think it’s fair to ask everyone to mask their children,” she said. “The testing protocols in place are excellent. This should be a choice. You mask the sick and vulnerable. You don’t mask the healthy.”