School Committee Weighs Mask Policy Amid Strong Feelings

by | Aug 12, 2021

 The panel considers linking mandatory mask use to infection rates

Needing to decide whether or not to mandate mask wearing in K-12 schools this year, the East Greenwich School Committee had a hot topic on the agenda for their first in-person meeting Tuesday since March 2020. And, indeed, 60 people turned out at the cafeteria at Cole Middle School and more than 125 others followed via Zoom. 

The first in-person School Committee meeting in 16 months.

The mask decision is part of a larger COVID-19 “safety protocols and procedures” policy that covers everything from cleaning and visitors to when – or if – students and staff would be required to wear a mask. The draft policy unveiled yesterday (find it HERE) uses four rates of transmission as guidance: low, moderate, substantial and high. 

In periods of low transmission, the district would “strongly recommend” all unvaccinated individuals wear a mask. If the transmission rate was moderate, the district would, again, “strongly recommend” all vaccinated students and staff wear masks; those who are unvaccinated would be “required” to wear a mask indoors. 

Everyone, regardless of vaccination status, would be required to wear a mask if the rate of transmission was substantial or high.

The transmission rate in Rhode Island right now is high, according to the state Department of Health, with 140 cases for every 100,000 residents in the past seven days. So, if school were to begin this week, mask wearing would be mandatory in EG schools under the draft policy.

District pediatrician Howard Silversmith addressed some of the issues raised by those who think wearing masks in schools should be a parent’s choice, including the basic question: Do masks work?
“We know masks work. We know that,” said Silversmith, a North Kingstown resident who practices in East Greenwich. “There was not spread in schools when children wore masks” last year and “there was no spread of RSV, no spread of flu, no spread of strep.” He said his practice saw one tenth the usual number of sick children last winter.

He said with the emergence of the far more contagious Delta variant, Rhode Island was not close to reaching herd immunity. Delta is causing nearly all COVID-19 cases right now. The vaccines are 95 percent effective against the formerly predominant Alpha variant. Against Delta, however, the vaccines are proving to be only 65 percent effective.

Silversmith also said some people were following old data. “The Delta variant is not 2020 COVID. I can’t let what’s happening in Texas happen here. Not on our watch,” he said, referring to the higher number of children becoming infected with COVID and some contracting additional viruses on top of that, such as RSV, a respiratory illness that can be very dangerous for younger children that is usually seen in winter, not summer. 

“I do hate masks. I hate them with a passion. I’m sweating because of this mask,” he said. “Your children wear bike helmets, I hope; your children wear seat belts, I hope” – this is the same thing, he said. “There are detrimental effects to masks. There are. But the benefits outweigh the detrimental effects.”

Before public comment began, School Committee Chair Anne Musella asked speakers to keep their comments to three minutes but the very first commenter blew right past that. Andrew Bostom of Chepachet, who has a medical degree, referred to studies he claimed showed that masks were not effective and were in fact harmful to children. He also called Silversmith’s information about the Delta variant “panic pornography.” 

He refused to stop speaking after three minutes, then five minutes, then eight minutes, with Musella at intervals telling him he was out of order. Two additional police officers (one police officer had been assigned to cover the meeting at the request of Supt. Alexis Meyer) were called to potentially remove Bostom if he continued to speak. Eventually, Boston ended his statement, to cheers from those in the crowd who are against a school mask mandate. 

East Greenwich parent Lisa Pomeroy, who has become a local leader in the fight against a mask mandate and who has a medical degree, spoke to mental and physical health issues around mask wearing for kids. “How are these children going to be able to learn effectively under these circumstances?” She said she was looking for data that masks were not harming children.

Allison Brindle, a pediatrician who lives in EG and is president of the R.I. chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics (which issued this letter to school superintendents earlier this week), said masks right now were necessary. While her children also were tired of wearing masks, she said, “they are learning to understand. They are protecting other members of the community.” She added, “Our children can and should be in school and masking is a critical piece of that.”

Several others echoed Brindle’s remarks, including several medical doctors who live in East Greenwich and have children in the schools. Some noted masks were especially necessary  now since children younger than 12 are not able to get the vaccine. 

Those favoring parent choice in the masking decision talked of the relatively low rates of child hospitalization and death, and some spoke of specific difficulties their children face because of masks. For instance, a young child with glasses and the inevitable problems faced by everyone who has to wear glasses and a mask. Or the child with a cleft lip and neurological issues who had to give up activities because she couldn’t cope with wearing a mask. One parent spoke about how her elementary age child was disciplined for wearing his mask incorrectly and how classmates threatened to tell on him if they saw him without his mask. Some expressed fears that mask wearing would become the norm. 

After 90 minutes of comments, the School Committee decided to schedule a special meeting in hopes of voting on the policy before their next regular meeting Aug. 31. Musella suggested meeting with Supt. Meyer, Committee Vice Chair Alyson Powell, the school nurses, and Dr. Silversmith to finetune questions like which  transmission metrics the district will follow. During public comment, School Committee candidate Peter Carney said it looked like it would only take two cases of COVID-19 to move EG from the low to moderate category, and seven to put EG in the high category. The smaller group would look at those metrics and would discuss other policy questions like what happens if a child has to quarantine, now that distance learning will not be an option next year. 

On Wednesday, Musella said she would like to prioritize people who live or work in East Greenwich when it comes to public comment – the first two commenters Tuesday night were from other communities. According to John Marion of Common Cause R.I., that is well within her authority.

In terms of time limits, she said she did not want to just cut someone off mid-thought, although she said Andrew Bostom – that first commenter – had abused the platform by refusing to yield after multiple requests. 

“I want everyone to be heard. I want to let people finish their thoughts. However … everybody should be able to be heard.”

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19 Comments

  1. Heather Tibbitts

    I wear glasses and have found that the snugness of the fit is important, particularly around the bridge of the nose. (Which is also important for efficacy.) I just bought 2 new masks for each family member to try out from a company in VT, and we have not had any issues with fogging glasses. They have child and adult sizes, including XL. We are wearing them any time we are in a public indoor setting.

    Reply
    • Steve Mendes

      What is the name of the VT mask company that helps with fogging glasses?

      Reply
      • Heather Tibbitts

        Beau Ties of VT

        Reply
        • Steve Mendes

          Thanks Heather

          Reply
  2. CR

    If masks really work like Dr. Silversmith adamantly says they do, then those who want to wear them can wear them and not be afraid. Those that don’t want to wear them should not have to. What is the issue? Don’t come back and say, “Oh, well, they work, but they don’t work 100% so we should still mask up just to be safe.” Where is the logic in that? For a virus, masks either stop it or they don’t. It’s not – well, these particles got through, but these didn’t based on the angle of where the person was standing when they were talking to me….
    If you are really that scared, then wear two masks. Do not force my child to wear one when you don’t want your child to wear two.

    Reply
    • Joe

      “Oh, well, they work, but they don’t work 100% so we should still wear seatbelts just to be safe.” Where is the logic in that? For a car crash, seat belts either stop it or they don’t. It’s not – well, Timmy got ejected in the front seat, but Frank didn’t in back.
      If you are really that scared, then wear two seat belts. Do not force my child to wear one when you don’t want your child to wear two.

      Anyway, it’s clear your argument is emotion based, not fact based. As we’ve heard since the beginning that the more of the virus you’re exposed to, the larger chance you have of getting sick.

      Reply
      • Blue

        Here’s my 2 cents for what it’s worth. For years there have been parents who have decided to not vaccinate their children for the institutional mandated vaccines (measles, mumps, etc). These parents stood by their choice and found alternative education for their children. This is a public health emergency, and if you’d like your children to matriculate within that sphere; unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your side) you will need to abide by the regulations. Let me add one thing here. My daughter, a nurse, who contracted Covid on the job last April, is now being mandated to get the vaccine. She has decided not to get the vaccine, and unless something changes will no longer work as a nurse. I don’t want to debate her choice with you, but my point is this; we have the personal freedoms to either wear a mask or not; get vaccinated or not. You just have to be willing to accept the results of those choices. For me, I’m vaccinated and am fine wearing a mask but I support your right to choose otherwise

        Reply
  3. Joe

    I think it is kind of you to mention that Lisa Pomeroy has a medical degree. It’s probably poignant to point out what that is, so people don’t assume she’s an expert in public health or anything. She is an OB/GYN and while I respect she has medical training, it is next to useless in this context. I am a Civil Engineer, I don’t tell Mechanical Engineers how to perform their duties.

    As for Andrew Bostom….well he presents himself well, but I suggest reading his articles. They are an interesting mix of anti-Muslim hysteria, pro-trump antics and covid denialism. (https://muckrack.com/andrew-g-Bostom/articles)
    He’s been published in such esteemed journals as Breitbart, Conservative Review and The Blaze. Anyway, you get the point. I genuinely can’t even figure out what his medical degree is in. And while he calls himself an epidemiologist, the best I can find is he was once an associate professor for family medicine. His data (as are much of the anti mask parent crowd) is next to useless as it draws from when the Delta variant was non-existent, and many children were distance learning. In fact, the reason the data looks so good for last year is because the children WORE MASKS. They’re literally showing data saying covid isn’t bad, but aren’t mentioning it wasn’t bad because of the thing they’re trying to remove.
    I think the plan the school committee has in place is smart, and should more than placate these people.

    Reply
    • Michael

      Great points, Joe! You were spot on with your engineering reference.

      Doctors Silversmith and Brindle are pediatricians….and more qualified than any others mentioned in this article to discuss what’s best for our children (including individuals holding other PhD’s). I am assuming they are more knowledgeable than most of the parents too. I hold multiple degrees as well – but I am not qualified to perform brain surgery, build a rocket, or do Dr. Silversmith’s job. I trust the experts.

      And you are so right on the data – it’s old data that is outdated.

      I am personally tired of all the griping and whining about masks. People, we will get through this – together. Just be patient and work together. All our decisions affect everyone else.

      Reply
    • JNP

      Dr. Bostom is actually a nephrologist at Brown. Did his residency there, unclear where fellowship was. I don’t doubt the MS in epidemiology. He is a clinical trialist with plenty of publications. This makes it all the more surprising that he plays as fast and loose with data as he does. He could probably craft a coherent narrative emphasizing the unknowns and realistic limitations of masking, but instead goes for a scorched earth debate style lacking any scrap of intellectual nuance. He was wildly rude at the meeting and seems to enjoy the term “savant” as an insult. His islamophobic nonsense stems from trauma surrounding 9/11, per a published interview with him. His mask hatred, meanwhile, probably dates back to his glasses fogging up in the OR in medical school. Every other complaint in his writing has a reference, but the one about med student glasses has no citation.

      Reply
  4. CR

    Please explain why the Governor hasn’t mandated masks in school and why the Johnston School Board agrees it’s a parent’s choice to mask, but East Greenwich does not? How is the science and data so different? I’m a taxpayer in East Greenwich and I believe I have a say in whether my child has to wear a mask or not in this district. We are not in a state of emergency, therefore, you really have no authority to mandate a face mask for my child.

    Reply
    • Michael

      Yeah, let’s wait until it IS a state of emergency before we mandate masks….that makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it?
      It’s kind of like when we know there is a hurricane coming…..let’s wait until it makes landfall before we do anything.

      Personally, I hate masks. But I think the Governor needs to make a mandate across the board so we can more quickly get out of this mess.

      Reply
      • Kevin

        I agree. I don’t like the masks, I don’t like having my daughter wear a mask, but what I really want is to put the pandemic in the rearview mirror and if wearing a mask for the next few months allows us to move past this quicker than that seem significantly more preferable than letting this drag out longer and longer.

        Also – for what it’s worth, I am happy to listen to anyone parent in town on this issue, but if you don’t live in EG then voice your opinions in your town – especially if your plan is to be an ass about not respecting the process.

        Reply
        • Michael

          Amen, brother!

          Reply
  5. Mallory

    Just want to point out that where schools are already in session (Florida, Georgia) and masks are not being worn, whole classrooms are being quarantined. How will you feel if there is no mask mandate and the kids have to return to virtual learning?

    Reply
  6. CR

    Please tell me that you’re kidding. You do realize that putting in a government mandate BEFORE a state of emergency is declared is unconstitutional, correct? The whole reason the mask mandate last year was not considered unconstitutional is because a state of emergency was declared. What you are basically saying is that we should be taking away people’s rights, freedom of choice, the very foundation of this country……”just in case”…? And please – tell me what mess are we exactly in right now, in East Greenwich, Rhode Island? Not the rest of the country, but where we live, right here. Do you even know the statistics and how low they are for people IN East Greenwich? I’m sure that this summer, everyone’s friends and families have traveled outside the state, outside the town of EG, and yet our numbers are still incredibly low. We should be making decisions based on what is going on HERE, not somewhere else.
    And you still didn’t answer my question – why hasn’t the Governor mandated anything and why did Johnston Public Schools decide to make it parental choice? How is the science and data so different?

    Reply
  7. Andrew

    Many notions of the Enlightenment were rooted in the concept that no single human being has any more or less right to their personal self-determination than any other. By extension, another important notion to come from that period of philosophical evolution is the idea of a “social contract”, which simply stated holds that the well being of the society in general is no less important than any individual. We wear masks to protect us, but more so because science offers evidence that our society is strengthened and protected by our collective sacrifice. That sacrifice is a critical piece of the American ethos, and should be reinforced in all age groups.

    People love to use the notions of liberty and freedom as support for arguments that are antithetical to the philosophies that gave rise to those ideas.

    It’s really just as simple as that. We should all wear masks because we are all better off for doing so and it actually supports our ideas of freedom and liberty.

    Reply
    • CR

      Actually, it can be argued that children at certain ages are not ‘rational’ beings quite yet, so that nullifies them from being a part of the social contract. It’s also unmeasurable as to which adults have willingly accepted into the social contract. And, finally, part of the issue of the social contract is that the government can take its power and abuse it in the guise of helping its citizens – which is the very same argument we find ourselves in.

      Reply
      • Andrew

        Respectfully, the social contract is not an instrument one can can opt into or out of. By accepting the benefits that are derived by combining with others in a society one accepts the responsibility for preserving and indeed furthering the rights of all OTHER members of said society.

        The government is derived from the will of the people and follows as a system of the social contract. We may not always agree with the government, but we are the government and this consequentialist utilitarian system is the best humanity has done as of yet.

        Masks are not normal, they are an inconvenience…agreed. But if the cost of not wearing them in terms of potential human suffering is greater than the loss of comfort experienced from wearing them, then it should really be an easy decision.

        Reply

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