Masks required for all as students, staff prepare to head back to the classroom
Wareham Public Schools will adhere to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s recent mask regulations — which requires all public school staff and all students over age 5, regardless of vaccination status, to wear masks inside school buildings — when school starts on Monday, Aug. 30.
The decision about whether or not to require masks inside schools had been slated for discussion at the School Committee’s Aug. 26 meeting. But the state’s Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley issued a statewide requirement on Aug. 25 that overruled the local board’s power, rendering a decision unnecessary at the committee level — at least for now.
The state requirement is set to last “until at least” Oct. 1, when public health data will be consulted and the issue will be revisited.
“When we return to school, which will be very soon, all students will be in masks from the time they step on the bus to the time they step off the bus,” Superintendent Dr. Kimberly Shaver-Hood said during the Aug. 26 meeting. “There will be mask breaks during the day, and lunch will be unmasked.”
Although DESE does not require that students younger than age 5 wear a mask, the state education department said it is “strongly recommended that students younger than age 5 also wear a mask in school.”
Students and staff will be exempt from wearing a mask when eating, drinking or during mask breaks. Per the state requirements, masks can also be removed “when necessary to participate in elective classes, such as the use of wind instruments in band.”
Although one person spoke in opposition to the idea of mandatory covid-19 vaccinations for school staff, no one spoke in opposition to the mask mandate during the Aug. 26 meeting.
DESE described the state-level requirement as “an important additional measure to keep students safe in school,” and simultaneously provided an incentive for staff and eligible students to get covid-19 vaccines.
“After October 1, 2021, if a school demonstrates a vaccination rate of 80% or more of students and staff in the school, then vaccinated individuals in that school would no longer be subject to the DESE mask requirement,” reads the guidance for implementing the mask requirement. “DESE will provide additional information to districts in the coming weeks in preparation for the October 1 date, including how to demonstrate the 80% vaccination rate threshold.”
School Committee member Geoff Swett pointed out that to determine whether or not the schools had reached an 80 percent vaccination rate, the schools would have to collect vaccination information.
Shaver-Hood said that only Wareham High School would be able to reach the 80 percent threshold, because Wareham Middle School houses students who are currently too young to be vaccinated.
Shaver-Hood said staff members have been invited to voluntarily and confidentially share their vaccination status with the school nurse.
“I will be checking periodically, and all I’m concerned with will be the number of staff who’ve been vaccinated,” she said. “They also are collecting information from students, and we will just gather the information from there.”
Dr. Amy Wiegandt, chair of the Wareham Board of Health, told the School Committee that the town’s overall vaccination rate as of Aug. 26 was “not much over 50 percent.” She said it was “certainly clear” that masks help curb the spread of the virus.
“I would support masks for now until we can get many people vaccinated so our numbers come down,” Wiegandt said when asked about requiring masks at school. “If our numbers of covid come down, then hopefully we can all get rid of the masks. But that really is not going to happen until everybody gets vaccinated.”
She recommended everyone get vaccinated — “For yourself, for your family. For your school, for your community.”
Shaver-Hood encouraged people to email or call her — or their student’s principals — if they have questions or concerns.
“We want everybody to be safe and secure,” she said. “And we would like to have a great school year.”