NSBORO Update: New Covid guidelines differ between elementary and upper schools (Updated)

Yesterday, the Superintendent issued new policies for the Northborough-Southborough public schools. The guidance for the elementary schools has apparently raised some questions among parents.

Emails were issued for two different grade groups, PreK-5 and 6-12. Middle and high school students will be allowed to take off masks outdoors as long as they maintain six feet of distance from others. But in the lower schools, students will still need to wear masks during recess.

At last night’s Regional High School Committee meeting, Wellness Director Mary Ellen Duggan gave an update. She acknowledged that some of the Medical Advisory Team’s (MAT) decisions were more conservative than the Mass Dept of Secondary Education rules, as they have been all year.* But she answered that the upper school policies were consistent with current state guidelines.

Committee Member Dan Kolenda questioned why MAT would follow more conservative rules than the state. He noted that he had heard from a lot of confused parents. (I also heard from a parent trying to learn why the MAT opted not to follow state guidance on this.) Duggan noted that erring on the side of caution had prevented any transmissions between students/staff in classrooms this year. 

Kolenda questioned her statement, suggesting that the same may have been true if they had followed DESE’s less strict guidance. However, he dropped his line of questioning when he was told that the high school policies were consistent with state policies. (He highlighted that the meeting was for the Regional School Committee, a reference to the fact that lower school policies aren’t in their jurisdiction.)

However, the district’s guidance for upper schools is consistent with the general state requirements for masks, but not with DESE’s recommendations for students, which states:

On May 17th, 2021, after consultation with the MA COVID Command Center’s Medical Advisory Board, the Governor announced that given the low rate of outdoor transmission of COVID-19, students no longer have to wear masks when outdoors, even if distance cannot be maintained. Effective May 18, this guidance update applies to recess, physical education, youth sports, and outdoor learning environments. Adults must continue to wear masks outdoors if distancing cannot be maintained. At this time, adults and students must continue to wear masks indoors.

Across all NSBORO schools:

  • Students must still wear masks on the bus and in the school buildings, except while eating. 
  • As Duggan noted last night, students can now to share materials without sanitizing. 

As I noted above, elementary students must wear masks during recess, while older students are being trusted to take off the masks outdoors if socially distanced. 

Restrictions that were loosened for the younger students regarding recess and mask wearing are:**

  • Classroom cohorts can intermingle at recess
  • Masks are not required in an outdoor classroom setting if seated and >6 feet apart

Last night, Duggan assured that the MAT was monitoring the science on a weekly basis. The emails to parents note:

As restrictions are lifted, the Medical Advisory Team will continue to monitor the data and make adjustments to these guidelines as necessary.

On a bright note, Principal Sean Bevan was optimistic that DESE guidance will be loosening restrictions for graduation this spring.

As for high school sports, the district is following the MIAA’s updated policies following guidelines “from Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA )”: 

  • Athletes on spring teams in active play outdoors are not required to wear a mask/facial covering.

  • Athletes when they are on the bench or in a dugout are not required to wear a mask/facial covering.

  • Athletes in low-risk sports when indoors where a distance of at least 14 feet or more is consistently maintained between each participant, are not required to wear a mask/ facial covering.

  • Spectators and chaperones, coaches, staff, referees, umpires and other officials who can social distance while outdoors, are not required to wear a mask/face covering.

  • Visitors, spectators, volunteers, and staff while indoors are required to wear mask/facial covering

  • Athletes in low-risk sports where a distance of at least 14 feet can not be consistently maintained, and all moderate or high-risk sports, while indoors are required to wear a mask/facial covering

*Prior to the fall reopening, DESE’s guidelines allowed for schools to space students 3 feet apart in classrooms. The district initially adopted hybrid schooling because not all classrooms could accommodate the 6 feet of distance recommended by the CDC. The Medical Advisory Team recommended being more conservative. Over the winter, studies of transmissions in schools convinced them that 3 feet was an acceptable distance among masked students. The MAT and administration then worked together on a plan to recommend the return to 4 days per week in-person learning. The switch to 5 days was based on DESE requiring schools to return to full in-person learning this spring.

**I believe that the allowed intermingling at recess and the policy about outdoor classrooms for PreK-5 are new. They differ from the policies on the 2021 Reopening Website posted for parents before the return to full in-person learning earlier this spring.

Updated (5/20/21 11:34 am): After reading a reader’s comment, I looked again for the exact guidance from DESE on recess. (I had tried unsuccessfully earlier.) What I found was that the agency’s advice issued on May 17th doesn’t require social distancing outdoors in order to ditch masks. I inserted that information above.

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Ken Stillwell
3 years ago

For those parents who are interested, this is a fairly big issue that should be paid attention to for all parents. The Medical Advisory Team for Northboro/Southboro schools decided to ignore the CDC and State Department of Health guidelines. What this tells me is that Mary Ellen Dugan believes she knows better than the state, the CDC and other organizations that established the guidance to begin with. We must now explain to our elementary school children that they are different than our bordering towns like Westboro. That somehow they are at bigger risk? that we care less about them enjoying fellowship at recess like other towns? that our Medical advisory team knows more than the state and the CDC? that our teachers support this move because of inherent risk in elementary school children in just our towns? this is a ridiculous overreach of policy and we should be ashamed to allow our children to be treated like socializing isnt an important aspect of learning. The administration is well aware of numerous parent concerns around this but “we are more conservative than others” is the answer. Make sure you explain that to your child as to why they cant play at recess without a mask like every other child in the state. This is so frustration to have a school administration that has no accountability to the federal or state guidance and therefore to its taxpayers.

Julie Connelly
3 years ago

I’m grateful that we’re starting to get a taste of normalcy, and I personally am comfortable with my kids removing masks outside, but I also won’t disparage the slightly more conservative approach recommended by the Medical Advisory Team. Have you looked at the bios of the MAT team? These folks actually probably do know better than the state. Several are top experts in their fields and we are so lucky to have them in our community. For well over a year they have volunteered countless hours while also working in high level medical capacities during a pandemic and dealing with all the personal struggles that many of us faced this year too. Because of their guidance we’ve been able to have a successful school year and be ahead of peer communities with Covid testing and full-time return to school. My kids have no idea whether kids in Westborough are wearing masks at recess, and most kids have done a stellar job of mask wearing and keeping each other safe. I totally am ready to rip off masks and allow my kids to as well, but let’s not disparage these experts who have given us so much this year. We’re almost (hopefully) on the other side of this, people will have different comfort levels at different times, let’s be patient with each other and see this through.

3 years ago
Reply to  Julie Connelly

I heartily agree with Julie. The MAT and Mary Ellen Duggan have worked tirelessly throughout this pandemic. We have four weeks of school left. Let’s respect their education, their knowledge, and their commitment to our kids and allow them to see this thing through in the way they see fit.

Ken Stillwell
3 years ago
Reply to  Julie Connelly

I think we are taking the wrong approach here and over-regulating our children with nothing to back it up. Look at what is on the school website. Look at the last comment. I am not planning to let my children think that wearing a mask in normal and like a seat belt. This was a temporary mitigation strategy not a permanent solution to avoiding germs.

Helpful tips:

Explain how masks help prevent the spread of germs
Normalize wearing a mask
Model healthy behavior and wear a mask
Let them choose their mask based on their age and interests.
Children are resilient and masks will become as routine as seat belts and bike helmets

david K
3 years ago

I can sympathize with Ken’s frustration. Julie, you seem like a very tolerant and level headed person so I appreciate that much. But I do think you are missing the fundamental 2 issues with this decision.
1) no local medical advisory team should be able to completely ignore the federal and state guidelines and make an independent decision on policy. The only exception I can think of is when our town would be exhibiting such a negative trend that we are uniquely at risk. The school administrator endorsed the decision I would assume and he should be held accountable for not following the state guidelines. Imagine if he allowed the MAT to circumvent the guidelines the other direction? No masks in class, for example. Recall that we varied from the state travel guidelines as well so this MAT is not listening to the state at all. So what will that mean for fall….
2) the news/media including social media is all over our children – even elementary school. So it is near impossible to hide from our children that they are being treated differently with no evidence or science or caseloads to support a variance from the Federal and State guidance. The fact that we think they don’t know because we are hiding it from them isn’t a good argument for why it would be acceptable.

I personally am very thankful for the efforts of everyone in the community but I do not approve of the precedent of a small group of people making policy with no information. I see hundreds of signs in Southborough with “Science is real” but then we don’t actually listen to the science based organizations giving us guidance – that is my principled issue. If there is some science that these organizations are missing, I would love to hear our school administrator tell us what the MAT knows that is different than the State Health Department.

interested outsider
3 years ago
Reply to  david K

I don’t have kids in the school system any more but I agree with Julie and Jessica and think david k’s logic is a bit flawed. It seems to me that the MAT is very aware of the science and have just enhanced the guidelines a bit for the last month of school. I could see taking them to task if they ignored or weakened the guidelines but keeping our own guidelines a little bit stronger for a few weeks doesn’t seem reckless nor does it seem a policy that ignores the science.
david k, I think you’d have very valid points if the MAT weakened the guidance… but to slightly strengthen the guidance for a month does not seem like a “….policy with no information” to me. I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree for a few weeks til school gets out…

Child Advocate
3 years ago

Interested Outsider,

This line of thinking is hurting our kids. It would be one thing if the virus was dangerous to kids. What about the psychological and emotional components of all of this. It seems far more dangerous to the kids than Covid to have masks worn and activities restricted. It’s reckless that restrictions are still in place. Imagine the boost the kids would get if they had the last month totally back to normal.

Can someone share a list of the names on the MAT? I would love to know their background. Are they employed by companies that may influence their thinking? Does this qualify them to apply their expertise to making recommendations in the schools?


Child Advocate

3 years ago
Reply to  Child Advocate

As an insider, I can tell you that our kids don’t care at all that they wear masks at school. There are fewer than 20 days of school left. Don’t worry, be happy.

Maskless Kids
3 years ago
Reply to  Jack

Jack, speak for yourself, my kids HATE wearing their masks all day at school. A maskless recess would be very welcoming and harmless.

Frank Crowell
3 years ago
Longtime Observer
3 years ago


You can’t actually blame the Big Bad Teachers Union for this one.

You should try reading the article again, this time for understanding. If that is not palatable for you, here you go:

MAT = Medical Advisory Team
MTA = Massachusetts Teachers Association

Frank Crowell
3 years ago

Hey Langtime – you need to keep up with current events. If the head of the CDC can be influenced by the a national teacher’s union then certainly our local MAT can be influenced by the MTA. There is not one tangible example of our Education Committees going against any union objective so why would anyone think the influence ends there?

But let’s just keep the kids wearing masks for no scientific reason and while we are at it let’s sure we keep the Teacher’s Union happy. It’s for our better good.

Kelly Roney
3 years ago

Frank could blame the MTA for bad weather. Not credibly, but his blaming doesn’t require credibility, only repetition.

Massachusetts has the best public schools in the country, so the MTA seems to be succeeding.

ken stillwell
3 years ago
Reply to  Kelly Roney

I am not making a comment about teachers – I think they are wonderful actually. I am making a comment about administrators not listening to the science and ignoring the health and well-being of our children. Ask the teachers in confidence – largely agree the masks are not good for the kids. and grades and confidence is dropping because of it.

Frank Crowell
3 years ago
Reply to  Kelly Roney

Oh, Kelly there you go again. If I am jumping to conclusions then let’s have the MAT disclose all outside organization correspondence. They certainly are not using science to make kids wear masks while outside (or inside for that matter). 


Let’s have a little full disclosure. Maybe the education committees should join in on full disclosure as well.

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