For those who thought pandemic protocols for schools had been permanently lifted and life was back to “normal,” think again.
The return of students to school is about six weeks away, but how they will return, masked or unmasked, is not clear.
As it stands at the moment, Gov. Charlie Baker has lifted all the coronavirus restraints and the students, if they were to go back today, could go back as they left in June — maskless.
However, different levels of government and some professional groups are making their opinions known, creating a stew of mask confusion.
As to the virus itself, it has mutated into other forms, which is causing an uptick in cases. That makes the path back to school a winding one.
And it’s not just in Massachusetts. A recent article published by Associated Press summed it up:
“Students in Wichita, Kansas, public schools can ditch the masks when classes begin. Detroit public schools will probably require them only for the unvaccinated. In Pittsburgh, masks will likely be required regardless of vaccination status. And in some states, schools cannot mandate face coverings under any circumstances.
“With COVID-19 cases soaring nationwide, school districts across the U.S. are yet again confronting the realities of a polarized country and the lingering pandemic as they navigate mask requirements, vaccine rules and social distancing requirements for the fast-approaching new school year.”
In May, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education released guidance for the reopening of schools in the fall.
“At this time, all health and safety guidance including masking and physical distancing will be lifted,” it said, according to Executive Office of Education spokeswoman Colleen Quinn. “We will collaborate with the Department of Public Health to issue any additional health and safety recommendations over the summer should they become necessary.”
On July 9, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said masks need not be worn by those who are vaccinated, but that distancing protocols in schools should remain in place.
And after the CDC announcement on July 9, another statement was issued by DESE.
“DESE will carefully review the new CDC guidance released today and consult with local medical experts to determine if any changes are necessary to the current school reopening guidance,” Quinn said.
On Monday the American Academy of Pediatrics weighed in, further fogging the lens. Contrary to the CDC, it urged everyone to wear masks when they go back to school, vaccinated or not.
In addition to vaccinations, the AAP recommends “layered” safety measures for all students, teachers and staff. That means hand washing, social distancing etc. and “includes a recommendation that everyone older than age 2 wear masks, regardless of vaccination status.”
Attleboro Superintendent Dave Sawyer is hoping that this fall will see a “normal” school reopening, as does just about everybody else, but he knows nothing is set in stone.
“Attleboro Public Schools are prepared to follow whatever guidance DESE issues for the fall,” he said in an email. “We are hopeful that conditions will allow us to return to familiar practices, but are closely monitoring the recent increase in cases among school-age children.”
The new superintendent in North Attleboro, John Antonucci, said no decisions have been made regarding masks.
“I appreciate the question about the mask guidance, however I am not in a position right now to weigh in on it, especially since I’m not officially on board until August 1,” he said in an email.
“That being said, the school committee (plans) to refer the discussion about masks to the policy subcommittee, so I expect we will tackle it in the next few weeks,” he said. “As I’m sure you can appreciate, for any decision we make it will be important to solicit input from the broader school community, including parents, faculty, and staff, as well as the medical community.”
Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Teachers Association declined comment, saying its leaders were on a retreat, and the Attleboro Teachers Association’s new president Richard Kelly also reserved comment.
“As of this moment, I do not have anything to say about the CDC’s or the MTA’s thoughts on masks in the schools,” he said.
So everything is about as clear as mud.
In the meantime, coronavirus cases are on the rise again, but about one-third of those cases are among those from 20 to 39 and 79 percent of all cases are among those 20 years old and older.
To what extent those numbers increase only the future will tell.
But on positive note, deaths are not going up.
Over the last three weeks the state has average 10 deaths per week while cases jumped from 384 to 1,226.
By way of contrast, the worst death total for one week was 1,170 and worst case total was 39,946.
And hospitalizations are holding their ground as are admissions to the intensive care units and people who have to be intubated.
Hospitalizations have ranged from 80 to 100 per day for the last month.
New statistics will come out on Thursday.
Meanwhile, the push to get all people from the age of 12 and up vaccinated continues.
A “Vax-Bus” sponsored by the state stopped in Attleboro last week and most of those getting the vaccine were young people. Seven out of the first 10 to show up were between the ages of 12 and 18.
In fact, the number of those between the ages of 12 and 19 in The Sun Chronicle area who are getting vaccinated is pretty high.
In the 10-community area, 51 percent of the 19,980 residents age 12-19 have been fully vaccinated, according to the Department of Public Health. And 61 percent have gotten at least one of the two required shots.
During the 2020-2021 school year, there were 508 cases of coronavirus reported among students and staff in Attleboro. Out of that number 432 were among students and 76 were among staff members.
That’s about 7.6 percent of the estimated 6,700 students and staff in the district.
However, only one of those cases was traced to an in-school exposure, according to school officials. That means all but one were contracted outside of school, which indicates a safe school environment.
Those numbers were accumulated at the time mask wearing was mandatory and students were attending school just two days a week.
The highest number of school cases statewide occurred in the week ending April 14, 2021 when 1,095 students were sick with the virus and 184 staff members were ill.
Those numbers published by DESE count only students and staff members who were in school during the seven-day period.
Students and staff who worked from home were not counted.
By contrast, Attleboro counted all those who were in school as well as those who did not set foot in any of the buildings.
The 1,095 students equaled less than two-tenths of one percent (0.17) of the estimated 650,000 students who appeared in school buildings during that seven- day period.
The 184 staff members also represented less than two tenths of one percent (0.15) of the estimated 125,000 staff members who were present in schools during that seven-day period.
The worst week for staff members was in the week ending Dec. 9, 2021 when 420 staffers out of the estimated 75,000 who were in schools that week were ill.
That number equals less than six tenths of one percent (0.56) of the 75,000 estimated to be in schools that week.
So appears that students were already pretty safe in schools and much more at risk outside them.
But what will happen in the fall, at this point is anyone’s guess.