Editor’s note: This story was amended at 7:45 a.m. Aug. 18 for clarity.
The mandate for all kicks in at “substantial” or “high” COVID-19 transmissions rates
In a special session Tuesday night, the School Committee voted 6-0 to approve a COVID-19 policy requiring universal masking for students and staff when rates of virus transmission are categorized as “substantial” or “high” by the state Department of Health. As of Aug. 17, the state’s transmission rate was high.
At rates of “moderate” transmission, masks will be recommended for those who have been vaccinated and required for those who have not been vaccinated, although the School Committee wrote some flexibility into the policy for Supt. Alexis Meyer regarding mask wearing for middle and high school students.
Masks are not required outdoors.
“I’m gratified by the process. We had meaningful discussion and we took many of the revisions,” said School Committee Chair Anne Musella, referring to changes made to the policy during the meeting, some reflecting concerns heard in public comment. “We truly want to do what’s best for all our students while ensuring the health and safety of all.”
Early on in the meeting, the School Committee got word the state’s governing board on elementary and secondary education had just passed a resolution instructing the state Department of Education (RIDE) to reject any school district’s back-to-school plan that did not include a mask mandate. The action appeared to try to override Gov. Dan McKee’s decision to leave masking rules up to individual school districts (unlike last year, when Gov. Gina Raimondo mandated masks for all students and staff).
Because the School Committee’s draft policy included a mask requirement at higher transmission levels, the committee did not see a reason to delay its work.
Public comment and discussion on the proposed “COVID-19 Health and Safety Protocols and Procedures” policy (which included the language on masking) took up nearly all of the three-hour-plus meeting, with around 30 people in attendance in person and close to 100 following on Zoom.
Questions and comments were more granular than at last week’s session, which also lasted for hours and included lots of public comment and discussion. Part of that was the recognition that the School Committee was most likely going to approve a policy that would include some kind of mask mandate. Several commenters wanted to know more about how discipline would be meted out for mask-wearing infractions (on a case-by-case basis, said Supt. Alexis Meyer) and whether or not mask breaks could be taken away as punishment (no, as a change in the policy Tuesday night reflected).
But there was also frustration that the School Committee was not appreciating East Greenwich’s high vaccination rates.
“Instead of getting the sense of how things are evolving we are going to the worst-case scenario right off the bat,” said EG resident Andy Naporano. “I’m disappointed we couldn’t look at this backwards: we have high vaccination rates and an intelligent community…. ” He added, “Get rid of the pessimism. This is a great place to be right now. I encourage you to stop looking at the glass half empty.”
“To the point of optimism … we are not in the same place we were last year,” Meyer stressed. “We do have tents, we have outdoor classrooms at Eldredge, at the high school…. We should utilize every opportunity to be outside. There will be ample opportunity to have breaks.”
She added the beginning of the school year was shaping up to look much more like a regular year.
“I met with the PTG presidents yesterday. They are planning outdoor picnics, a 6th grade movie night … I was incredibly encouraged yesterday,” she said.
Another commenter said she wasn’t sure what she would tell her children,“who spent the summer mask free, fully vaccinated and having the time of their lives, making up for a summer that was the worst of their lives last year.” She was particularly worried because both of her children have asthma and she said they had difficulty breathing with a mask on.
“We’ve done everything we’ve been asked to do … our family’s fully vaccinated … and yet here we are, at what I feel like is back to square one,” she said.
Meyer said people with health concerns should reach out to their children’s principal and school nurse.
Several commenters mentioned the idea of students being able to take off their masks while sitting quietly at their desks; that suggestion was not taken up by the School Committee.
Among the changes made to the policy during the meeting Tuesday was one to give Supt. Meyer more discretion regarding mask policy during a period of “moderate” virus spread, in particular at the high school and middle school, allowing for less requirement and more recommendation of mask wearing.
The policy also allows for Meyer to bring any revisions directly to the whole School Committee instead of first bringing it to the policy subcommittee, which would slow down any changes. Just before the panel voted – unanimously – for the revised policy, committeeman Gene Quinn spoke to the underlying concern about the now-dominant Delta variant and its increased contagiousness.
“Our objective here is to open schools safely and keep them open safely,” he said.
You can watch the Aug. 17 meeting on our Facebook page HERE. The School Committee’s next meeting is Aug. 31; the first day of school is Wednesday, Sept. 8.