Above: Supt. Alexis Meyer reads to a class at Eldredge last spring.
As we approach the 2021-2022 school year, one of the biggest questions is if unvaccinated students will need to wear masks inside the building. And after Tuesday’s School Committee meeting, which included updated COVID guidelines, the answer still isn’t clear.
As noted by Supt. Alexis Meyer, this year’s COVID-19 guidelines are “nothing like the guidelines that were issued last year” – i.e. not very restrictive. The guidelines were released by RIDOH and RIDE to school superintendents in late June.
For starters, the guidelines say students will be in person five days a week, which means schools won’t be required to have distance learning as an option anymore. However, if any students or families have severe health risks or special healthcare needs, they should individually reach out to the district, said Meyer.
Some significant changes have been made to masking guidelines, especially in regard to vaccinations.
When indoors, masks are optional for fully vaccinated students and staff and “strongly recommended” for unvaccinated students. However, the guidelines also specify that local school districts have the option to require mask use for unvaccinated students. Districts have the choice to assign policies specific to grade level, and it is up to them whether they want to require proof of vaccination from individuals who say they are fully vaccinated.
Outside, mask use is not required, regardless of vaccination status.
Several in the community have advocated for the district to allow parents to decide whether or not their children should wear a mask to school each day, regardless of vaccination status.
At the meeting Tuesday, committee member Kevin Murphy asked about the words “strongly recommended” in the guidelines, seeking clarification on if that means parents can choose whether or not to mask their kids.
In response, Meyer said she was waiting until further discussion with RIDOH and RIDE in August before assuming the literal meaning of “strongly recommended.”
For younger students who are not eligible for vaccination (those 11 and younger), RIDOH and RIDE encourage the use of stable groups to facilitate contact-tracing. While last year’s guidelines required six feet of distance between students, this year’s guidelines only recommend three feet of distance. However, six feet of distance will continue to be used as the distance requirement when contact-tracing.
COVID screening will also change. The guidelines say students and staff are “strongly encouraged to monitor symptoms at home.” Families will no longer have to fill out a daily attestation form in ASPEN as they had done for the past school year.
The seven-day quarantine order will remain in effect, as well as the requirement to get a negative COVID test result on the fifth day or later, before returning on the eighth day. For in-school COVID testing, districts can choose which types of testing to use. However, if an outbreak were to occur at a school, RIDOH itself would conduct PCR testing at the school.
Parent Lisa Pomeroy inquired about the lack of a distance-learning option for students who are sick or in quarantine, and whether or not they would be able to engage in school from home.
“If kids are home sick they would be home sick like they had been before,” Meyer said in response to Pomeroy’s question. In other words, children home sick need to focus on healing, not schoolwork. Meyer added that the hypothetical situation would be addressed in more detail at August’s meeting.
In terms of transportation, “Masks are required by federal order on school buses and other forms of federal transportation,” said Meyer. Open windows and ventilation are also encouraged on buses, as well as seating charts. However, unlike last year, there will be no capacity limits on school buses.
Meyer and Assistant Supt. Michael Podraza will be attending a regional meeting next week to review the updated guidelines and discuss them in more depth. The goal, said Meyer, is to have the EGSD health and safety guidelines finalized sometime in August, before the start of the 2021-22 school year.
Aiza Shaikh, a newly minted EGHS alum (Class of 2021), has been an EG resident since 2008. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys hiking, traveling, and eating coffee ice cream.