Masks mandate to stay in place until March 14 in Wareham schools
The Wareham School Committee voted on Feb. 17 to extend the mask mandate in schools to March 14, two weeks after the statewide mandate lapses, in an attempt to stave off a post-vacation spike in covid cases.
Governor Charlie Baker will lift the statewide mask mandate for students on Feb. 28 — the day kids get back to class from February break. Individual districts must decide whether to continue mask mandates after that date.
Regardless, federal law requires masking on the bus. Students will need to wear masks in the nurse’s office and for five days after a positive test result.
“As we’ve heard, there are some compelling arguments on both sides,” said Superintendent Dr. Kimberly Shaver-Hood. She said she asked staff what they thought, and about two-thirds supported lifting the mandate and making mask-wearing a personal choice for students and staff.
Shaver-Hood recommended following the state order.
Committee member Apryl Rossi asked whether the town has a plan for a possible post-vacation spike in cases. After the December vacation, there were so many staff members who needed to stay home due to covid that the schools had to remain shut for an additional day as administrators scrambled to devise coverage plans.
Shaver-Hood said the district has been working hard to increase its roster of substitute teachers.
“Everybody is working to make sure that we have the coverage we need to open school safely,” Shaver-Hood said.
“I just feel we’re jumping the gun a little bit,” said committee member Kevin Brogioli, who suggested extending the mandate for two weeks to mitigate the spread of covid after the vacation.
Brogioli said Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has helmed the country’s covid response, said in an interview this week that it’s risky at this point to drop school mask mandates.
He also asked about how many Wareham students are vaccinated. According to state data, 17 percent of children ages 5 to 11 in Wareham are fully vaccinated. That rate is 41 percent for kids ages 12 to 15, and 47 percent for 16 to 19-year-olds.
“I’m sick of masks, I want to get rid of masks, but I want to make sure that we do it in a timely and prudent fashion,” Brogioli said.
Committee member Mary Morgan also urged caution, and said she wanted to extend the mandate for two weeks and potentially reevaluate at that point. She noted other districts have made the same decision.
Geoff Swett, another committee member, said he’d done some research ahead of the meeting. He said that people he knows at Southcoast Health told him that the number of patients hospitalized for covid has dropped significantly and their staffing levels are sufficient. He noted that the south coast region has a higher rate of test positivity than the state average, and that Wareham’s vaccination rate is lower than the state. About 58 percent of Wareham residents are fully vaccinated, in comparison to 76 percent of Massachusetts residents overall.
While he’s concerned about students, Swett said, he’s far more concerned about the vulnerability of staff and the older adults in students’ lives.
He agreed that extending the mandates for two weeks made sense, and added that he hoped the covid positivity rates would be down and vaccinations would be up at that point. Swett did say that he was concerned that it could be difficult or impossible to reinstate the mask mandate in the event of another surge in cases.
Chair Joyce Bacchiocchi said she was in favor of lifting the mandate on Feb. 28, largely because the district has always deferred to the expertise and guidance of the state.
Apryl Rossi made a motion to lift the mask mandate on Feb. 28. She and Bacchiocchi voted in favor, but the motion failed 2-3. Swett moved to delay lifting the mask mandate until March 14 — a measure that was favored by Swett, Brogioli, and Morgan. Bacchiocchi and Rossi voted no.
The schools will continue to distribute weekly at-home tests to any students and staff who want them. Right now, 550 students and 320 staff receive tests each week.
Whether students and staff choose to continue to mask or go mask-free after March 14, the committee was confident those in schools would treat each other with respect.
“I think we have a great privilege of having a community that accepts people — especially on the school level — for who they are and what their choices are,” Rossi said.