Parents question the risks schools take in opposing mask mandate

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Gregory St. Lawrence addresses the School Committee at the Nov. 1 meeting. Following the news that the mask mandate for students would be extended into January, parents are asking what would happen to the schools if they refused to comply. Staff Photo/Max Bowen

By Max Bowen-max.bowen@northstarreporter.com

With the recent news that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s mask mandate will continue into early 2022, some parents raised the question—what would happen if the schools just said “no?”

The mandate, which has been in effect since school starred, requires masks of all students regardless of vaccination status, as well as faculty and visitors. If a school can report at least 80 percent of students and faculty have received the COVID vaccine then the mandate would be lifted for that school. So far, few communities have met this threshold, among them Hopkinton High School.

At the Nov. 1 School Committee meeting, Superintendent John Antonucci said that though there is an off-ramp from the mandate, it would only apply to the high school, since at the time the vaccine is not yet available for those under the age of 12. He hopes that once it becomes widely available for younger children, the mandate may be lifted.

Families either choose to get it or not to get it and then we move with a long-range plan,” he said.

As DESE is responsible for allocating state funding to school districts across Massachusetts, parents in attendance asked what could happen if North Attleborough refused to comply with the mandate. It’s estimated that around $20 million of the school’s funding comes through Chapter 70 state funding. Gregory St. Lawrence, who sits on the Tri-County Regional Vocational High School Committee, said that districts were being put in a difficult position.

There does need to be pushback, there does need to be clarity,” he said. “We deserve as much from the state.”

Antonucci said that there has been no communication from DESE that compliance with the mandate is linked to state funding, but added that no district seems interested in being the test case. Town Council President Pare spoke on the question, saying that if state funding was withheld, it could lead to a school closing.

We’re listening to you guys, it’s not like it’s falling on deaf ears,” said Pare, the council’s liaison to the committee. “That’s the sort of thing we’re grappling with. If we’re the one town to say no and they pull the money, we’re in trouble.”

Heath Hobson asked how the committee could rationalize going along with the DESE mandate. He said that many parents are worried about a COVID vaccine mandate, especially with little or no data on its long-term effects. He’s seen inconsistencies with masking all over town, even among the seniors, who are among the most vulnerable if they contract COVID.

I’m sick of hearing that we’re getting this from conspiracy theories and we’re not,” said Hobson, adding that many of those speaking against the vaccine or masking are accredited medical professionals.

Hobson asked why those who have contracted COVID and now have the antibodies aren’t being counted with those that have gotten the vaccine. Antonucci said that it isn’t being considered with the mandate.