In some states they’ve set governors against local school boards and school boards against some of their citizens.
Locally, they’ve resulted in dueling Facebook postings, rival petitions and even disagreements among family members.
They are face masks, which many adults and children learned to endure more than a year ago as the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic swept across the country.
Melissa Winchell, an education professor at Bridgewater State University who has studied the research on masks and children, says their use in schools should not be seen as a point of contention. Instead, they should be seen as teaching children “a way of caring for our neighbors, of showing concern, and, dare I say, love.”
Now the state may take that decision out of the hands of local school boards anyway. Jeffrey Riley, state education commissioner, on Friday said he will ask for the authority to impose a mask mandate for schools across the commonwealth.
Along with social distancing, business lockdowns and, finally, effective vaccines, masks helped slow the spread of COVID-19, studies show, and allowed schools in Massachusetts to return to in-person learning, after months of remote classes, for the last part of the 2020-2021 school year.
As vaccinations increased and infection rates dropped, governments across the U.S. — since federal authorities decided to leave such regulations up to the states — rescinded masking requirements for vaccinated adults in most settings, and parents and school authorities anticipated mask-free classes when students returned to in-person learning in the fall. Classroom masks were optional for summer school programs around our area.
However, the delta strain of the virus, a more virulent mutation, has driven up the infection rate once again in several areas of the country, including Massachusetts.
Nationwide, pediatric COVID-19 hospitalization rates are lower than those for adults, but have surged in recent weeks, reaching 0.41 per 100,000 children ages 0 to 17, compared with 0.31 per 100,000, the previous high set in mid-January, according to an Aug. 13 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention detailed this week by the Associated Press. Scientists are not yet able to say with any certainty whether the delta version makes people more severely ill or whether youngsters are especially vulnerable to it.
Massachusetts’ caseload is down from its peak during the worst of the outbreak, but the daily average of new virus cases has crept back up and is now 913, according to state health officials. That’s more than 14 times the lowest average of 64 daily cases in late June. It’s not clear how many of those cases were school age children.
The CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), among others, are recommending masks for any unvaccinated person, particularly children under 12, a group for which vaccines have not been approved. The Massachusetts Medical Society this week urged a mask mandate for the state’s schools as have the state’s largest teachers unions, including those that represent educators in Sun Chronicle area schools. A poll released Thursday by the MassINC Polling Group showed 81% of the state’s voters support requiring masks for anyone entering a school building.
Republican governors in Florida, Arizona and Texas have warned school districts not to impose mandates. Some school boards, mostly Democratic, in those states where the delta variant has recently surged have defied those warnings.
In Massachusetts, GOP Gov. Charlie Baker had resisted imposing a state order compelling schools to require masking, but “strongly encouraged” students to wear masks. He’s said a masking order wasn’t needed because the state, even with the recent surge in cases, is in better shape than much of the country when it comes to vaccination rates with nearly 5 million people, more than 71 percent of the state’s population, having gotten at least one shot.
That was also the stance of the state education department under guidance issued to local schools last month.
On Friday, however, Riley changed course. Citing a need “to ensure schools fully reopen safely and to provide time for more students and educators to get vaccinated” he will ask the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to grant him the authority to mandate masks for all public schools until October 1.
After that, middle and high schools in the state that have at least 80% of students and staff vaccinated would be allowed to lift the mandate for those who have had the shots. Lower grades would have to keep masking and unvaccinated students and staff would still be required to wear masks
“As students and staff prepare to return to school full-time, in-person, our priority is on a smooth reopening. With cases rising, this mask mandate will provide one more measure to support the health and safety of our students and staff this fall,” Riley said in his statement.
Baker joined in the statement, calling it as a way to increase vaccinations even more.“Vaccinations are the best way to keep everyone in the commonwealth safe, and we will continue to work with school districts to offer vaccination clinics at schools across the commonwealth,” he said.
State Sen. Becca Rausch, who had criticized the Baker administration for balking at the advice of health authorities, and filed a bill in the Legislature to require masking in schools, hailed the change as a “victory.”
The Needham Democrat, whose district includes much of the Attleboro area, said in a statement Friday that “Families across Massachusetts will finally have peace of mind sending their children back to classrooms with the protection of universal masking in K-12 schools. This victory belongs to every student, parent, teacher, school committee member, public health expert, and advocate who joined me in speaking up for science and safety.”
She maintained her criticism of the governor, however. “The Baker Administration owes our commonwealth an apology for holding our communities’ health and well-being in limbo until mere days before our children return to school, and I urge the governor to extend these same protections to our early education settings.”
The most recent guidelines issued in May and updated Aug. 3 by the Department of Early Education and Care, which oversees preschool and child care settings in the state, say the agency “recommends that all unvaccinated individuals, including staff, educators, and children 5 years old and older continue to wear masks when inside an EEC-licensed program, consistent with the mask advisory issued by the Department of Public Health.” It says children under 5 are exempt from wearing face coverings, but families who prefer to mask should be supported.
It states children and fully-vaccinated individuals don’t have to wear masks or social distance while outdoors, and encourages unvaccinated staff to wear masks outside if they can’t maintain distance. Those with underlying conditions or share a household with someone at increased risk are encouraged to mask regardless of vaccination status.
On Monday, Attleboro was the first public school system among the 10 communities covered by The Sun Chronicle to institute mandatory masking for students in kindergarten through sixth grade. The measure passed by a narrow 5-4 vote. On Thursday, Mansfield’s school board voted unanimously to require masks in all school buildings, following the recommendations of Superintendent Teresa Murphy.
King Philip Regional Schools had originally said it would not impose a mandate for its senior and junior high schools nor would the Dighton-Rehoboth Regional School District, but both also indicated they would follow the lead of state education authorities. D-R Superintendent Anthony Azar sent parents a copy of Riley’s statement on Friday, saying the schools would keep parents posted on future developments. Seekonk Public Schools had not set a policy but planned to vote on one at its school committee meeting Tuesday.
In North Attleboro schools, where tensions over the issue have run high (there are at least three North-centric Facebook groups for and against masking) plans were to start the school year with masks optional.
Friday, Superintendent John Antonucci said school officials are still digesting the new information. “It’s going to change our plans,” Antonucci said Friday. “It’s a mandate. I expect we will follow it.” The school committee and board of health will hold a joint meeting Tuesday on the issue of masking.
Foxboro Superintendent Amy Berdos has said she will recommend the school board vote at its meeting next Tuesday to require masks in all school buildings. Norton won’t vote on the issue until next Thursday.
Bishop Feehan High School in Attleboro will start the year with all 1,100 of its students wearing masks in class as well as for some after-school activities.
But even if mask requirements are lifted at some point, students won’t be able to toss the face coverings for the year. Federal regulations still require face masks to be worn on school buses.
Winchell, the Bridgewater professor, says that while she understands the anxiety of parents, the available research shows that mask wearing does not harm children’s learning or social skills, a concern often raised by parents at public meetings and on social media.
Winchell cites one study done in December by the National Institutes of Health showing that, while there was some loss of clarity with students masked, they were still able to communicate and it was “unlikely to impair social development.” But, she points out, whatever children miss, they are capable of relearning. “Our brains develop throughout our lifetimes. It’s not as if we will never make that up.”
As far as the medical effectiveness of masks, a CDC article from October indicated that multi-layer cloth masks “provide reasonable protection,” although parents need to be vigilant about washing them, she said.
Winchell was a strong advocate for a mask mandate for Massachusetts public schools to protect all children.
Some local parents remain unconvinced of the need for government involvement at all.
A common refrain on various social media forums has been that mask wearing should be a personal decision for parents, not state or even local authorities.
Some of those who commented either on web forums or in public meetings declined to speak to The Sun Chronicle for this story, some citing the bitter feelings the issue has caused.
However, Kate Faira, who will have three children in three different schools in North Attleboro this fall — elementary, junior high and high school — has said on a local Facebook page that masks should be optional, a view she repeated in an interview with The Sun Chronicle.
The 40-year-old Hockomock YMCA employee said, that “for every argument for, you can find one against” wearing masks. “For every nurse you have saying you should wear masks, you can find one who says you shouldn’t.” She says the guidance has “flip-flopped.”
She points out that children, including her own, have been engaging in maskless activities all summer long and there’s been no widespread outbreak of the disease here.
“To me, if you want to protect yourself it’s a matter of personal responsibility. I take the risks of life,” she says. Nevertheless, she and her husband are both vaccinated. Her children don’t want to wear masks when they go back to school but they will if it becomes a requirement. Despite her opposition to mandates, she says, “It’s a small price to pay to be in school.”
What she wants most, though, is for the fighting over masking to stop, including within families and on social media. ”Everybody has a good reason for choice they are making.”
For other parents, that’s not quite enough.
Kristen Connoly, 41, has two children in the North school system, neither one old enough to be vaccinated yet.
“You are trying to teach kids it’s not just about you.,” she says. If there’s a way to protect them and others, she says, “wearing a mask a few hours a day is worth it. If we protect one person from getting sick, isn’t that enough?”
Connoly, who works with children, including those on the autism spectrum, in another school district, says the important thing is to keep children in school. Even a few days missed for the children she works with can be harmful, so another lockdown or school closing could be devastating.
She asks why not start the year with masks and, when it’s possible, lift the mandate. “Now we are going back with nothing,” she said earlier this week prior to Commissioner Riley’s Friday announcement.
Chelsey Fitch recently launched a Facebook page, Protect Our Kids North Attleboro, to share similar views.
The 39-year-old mother of two elementary school students says she was worried about sending her children to school with no mask mandate in place as the delta variant surges.
Her page highlights articles on the issue and has promoted a petition sent to the town’s board of health, the town manager and school committee urging a mandate. Her children would have been wearing masks to school whether there was one or not.
“I don’t want there to be drama,” she says, “We are just trying to get our voice heard.”
There are at least two other Facebook pages dedicated to opposing a mandate in North Attleboro alone. Mandate opponents delivered a petition, claiming more than 350 signatures, with their view to the school committee last month.
Bridgewater’s Winchell says that what’s more important than masking is mental health. “Isolation, not being with friends,” as when schools close down, can be harmful.
When it comes to wearing masks, however, “Kids are pretty resilient,” she said.
Winchell says some parents feel the experts “don’t know what they are doing” when guidance about dealing with the pandemic changes. But that’s because “the science is emerging” as we learn more about the virus.
But, she notes, “There is a lot of misinformation out there.”
As a scholar, she says, she always asks what the source of information might be.
She recommends checking on the CDC website (www.cdc.gov) or using Google Scholar to access scientific journals. Even if you don’t plow through the entire article, the abstract at the beginning can provide valuable information.
Your local library is also a source for a wealth of information, with professionals to help to find it and databases you can use for free, she says. They can help access articles that might be behind a paywall, she points out.
The mask issue can be a teachable moment, she says.
It can demonstrate “how much we need a sense of being cared for.” She says it can show that “this is way of caring for our town, our teachers and our classmates.”
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this story.)