School committee meetings on Mask Policy changes, focus on attendance rates (Updated – again)

On Wednesday and Thursday nights, school committees will hear proposals for loosening mask requirements at Northborough and Southborough schools. A special meeting this afternoon revealed many of the proposed details, including using attendance thresholds as a trigger for action.

It didn’t clarify if the timeline would keep mask requirements in place beyond the return from February break.

A “First Reading” of proposed policy changes is scheduled for the regular Regional School Committee Meeting on Wednesday, February 16th at 6:30 pm. (Click here for agenda and webinar link.) The following night, a similar First Reading is scheduled for a dedicated joint session of the Northborough and Southborough school committees for K-8 schools. (Click here for that agenda and webinar link.)

Revisiting the policy and a “reasonable off ramp” for masking at Algonquin had been anticipated for months.

Action on the lower schools was expedited by the announcement by Governor Baker last Wednesday that the state mandate for masks in schools would be lifted effective February 28th. As the Dept of Secondary Education made clear, individual school districts can still maintain their own mask policies. The NSBORO Districts have mask policies in place which will continue to require masks at the school unless the school committees vote to make a change.

Today, the subcommittees on policies for Northborough and Southborough held a special joint meeting to discuss proposed policy revisions. Superintendent Gregory Martineau and Wellness Director Mary Ellen Duggan walked them through a proposed policy change based on the version drafted for the Regional committee. Revisions to the first several paragraphs are minor. The big change is halfway down the page with the addition of a process to lift and reinstate most of the “face covering” requirements.

When the Average Student Daily Attendance exceeds 92% over a three-week period, the Superintendent will:

  1. Convene the Medical Advisory Team to review the data.
  2. Consult with the local Board of Health Director or Agent for their approval.
  3. And make a recommendation to the School Committee to lift the face covering requirement.

Should the Average Student Daily Attendance fall below 92% over a one-week period, or if other unforeseen circumstances warrant, the Superintendent will: 

  1. Convene the Medical Advisory Team to review the data.
  2. Consult with the local Board of Health Director or Agent for their approval.
  3. Make a decision to reinstate the face covering requirement until the school committee convenes.
  4. Make a recommendation to the school committee at the next meeting.
  5. Ask the school committee to vote on the decision

The decisions for lifting and reinstating may be made on individual district basis. They are also likely be tiered for PreK-5 and grades 6-8. 

This afternoon, administrators indicated that their recommendation will likely be to lift mask requirements for older students before younger ones. That is based on increased risk to families. More kids in grades K-5 have siblings under 5 (therefore ineligible for vaccinations) than those in older schools. Administrators acknowledged that they might find that lifting the mask policy in schools causes a sudden spike in cases.

Even when the requirement is “lifted” there are some instances where students will need to wear masks. Based on federal and/or state requirements, Duggan said they will still be worn on buses and in the nurses’ offices. If students/staff isolate due to a positive Covid test then returns after Day 5, they will be required to wear masks on days 6-10. If someone is symptomatic but tests negative, masks are still requested.

Those requirements are apparently covered by a reference in the final paragraph:

During the absence of the face mask requirement, the District will adhere to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) guidelines regarding face coverings.

As for why the administration is focusing on attendance requirements, Duggan and Martineau explained that they and the Medical Advisory Team had looked at several different triggers over time. Some would have been so stringent that looking back the only time students could have gone maskless this year would have been August. At one point keeping the % of cases low was a concern based on the contact tracing burdens it caused for staff. That changed when the state allowed the school to replace contact tracing protocols with increased testing availability (via at home rapid tests).

The attendance was chosen as an important component based on the schools’ priority of ensuring students are able to receive an in-person education. Administrators clarified that if attendance issues are determined to be unrelated to Covid, they won’t pursue reinstating mask requirements. Duggan noted that they have tracked the attendance data, including reasons for absences, since well before the pandemic. Martineau pointed out that in pre-pandemic years attendance never dipped below 92%. If it did dip that low, even without Covid concerns, it would be important for the administration and Medical Advisory Team to touch base on what was happening.

Answering on the timeline for the process, Martineau stated that the administration had already prepared by going through steps. (That means the discussions with the MAT and Board of Health agents already toodk place.) And Duggan confirmed that the attendance rates have been well above 92% in the schools for the last three weeks.

However, there wasn’t clarification on the required timeline for revising an official School Committee policy. This week’s meetings are just for the “First Readings”. The committees’ own policy manuals specify that this should be followed by a period to receive input for possible revision, another review by the policy meeting, legal counsel review, then a Second Reading with more discussion opportunity before a final vote.

Nothing in the policy on policies allows the committees to bypass that process. Yet it wouldn’t be unprecedented to do that. Last spring, the administration announced a change to allow students to remove masks when outdoors, despite the committees’ policies that masks must be worn on school grounds. (That’s one of the edits to be cleaned up in the proposed revised versions. You can see a draft here and redlined version here.)

The possibility for surveying parents on mask mandates was raised at last Wednesday’s Southborough School Committee meeting. Members agreed that getting parent input was important. But some advised that given the passionate views on both sides of the issue, it wouldn’t be very helpful to get a yes/no answer on mandates. Member Jennifer Primack urged focusing on learning what parents’ concerns were so that the Medical Advisory Team could address them. She also asked for the mental health of children to be taken into consideration.

The district did solicit feedback from parents over the weekend. In an email late Friday afternoon, the Superintendent’s Weekly Update included a section asking for parent input:

In preparation for upcoming school committee meetings, I am seeking information that parents and guardians would like the school committees to consider when they are discussing their face covering policies and making decisions.

A linked survey was available through Monday at noon. (That email was the only communication sent on the survey, and didn’t reference the topic in the subject line.) Today, subcommittee members said they had read the comments, which informed some of their questions.

In today’s joint policy meeting, the administration and MAT fielded questions from subcommittee members. Answering about studies on mental health impacts of masks, Duggan stated that there is no clear direct study. She and District Physican Safdar Medina explained that the issue is muddled by overlapping other factors like isolation (including lack of playdates), distancing, and even (for older students) impacts of increased time on social media. But they do believe that masks likely play a part in the big picture.

Vax rates in NSBORO schools as of Feb 9The meeting began with an introduction by Martineau acknowledging the social emotional suffering of students during the pandemic and a need to move towards getting back to normal. The administration and MAT also spoke about other safety measures that will still be in place to reduce risks of Covid spread, including HEPA filters, air exchange, open windows, and the testing/monitoring. They are happy with the schools’ high vaccination rates and continue to encourage vaccinations as the best protection for children.

Prior to lifting mandates, the K-8 schools will focus on preparing students for the change. They’ll be talking to kids about accepting other students different choices and behaving appropriately.

Updated (2/16/22 9:46 am): Since there was a reference to vaccination rates, I decided it makes sense to share the latest stats in NSBORO schools. At last week’s School Committee meeting, Duggan shared the above right data.

Updated (2/16/22 8:47 pm): In watching tonight’s presentation, I realized the versions of the proposed policy I shared were missing a phrase including “all District employees” among those that must wear masks in schools (unless the requirement is lifted). I replaced the linked pdfs with updated versions  (You can see a draft here and redlined version here.)

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