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Will Berkshire Hills keep a school mask mandate? Officials aren't rushing to decide

The state's school mandate ends Feb. 28

Children play on gym equipment

Students at Muddy Brook Regional Elementary School enjoy recess. The Berkshire Hills Regional School District is weighing whether to do away with masks after the state's mandate expires Feb. 28.

GREAT BARRINGTON — Under pressure to make a decision about whether to enforce a mask requirement after the state’s school mandate expires at the end of the month, school officials plan to go slow.

Peter Dillion, superintendent of the Berkshire Hills Regional School District, said at Thursday’s School Committee’s meeting that he had only known of Gov. Charlie Baker’s announcement ending the mandate, effective Feb. 28, for 30 hours, and he needed time to digest the news.

“I’m not ready tonight,” he said. “I would like to be very deliberate and spend the next week talking to the four school nurses, our local doctors, the boards of health.”

Dillon said he will bring his thoughts and information, and some “really crystallized thinking” to the committee next week, before the schools go on winter break the week after.

While he doesn’t think there is a “huge sense of urgency” to make a decision, he is fielding many questions from the school community.

“Everybody is starting to email me,” he said. “This is one race that I don’t feel we need to win, and it may make a little sense to be deliberate and see what happens in some neighboring communities before we jump to our own decision. There are lots of advantages and disadvantages.”

The issue has roiled schools across the country, and raised questions about the necessity of masking children and young people who are the least vulnerable to COVID-19, and most vulnerable to harm to their development and education.

Masks are a big issue here, too. A few towns north, almost 100 people attended a Lenox School Committee meeting last week to chime in before the committee voted unanimously to end mask rules for middle and high schoolers starting mid-March.

Case counts are falling, and communities are toying with taking off the masks. Health officials are optimistic, but urge caution.

Massachusetts already has a law allowing schools to end masking if vaccination rates are over 80 percent. At Berkshire Hills, Monument Mountain Regional High School surpassed that in October, but officials kept the rule intact, given the wild spread of the omicron variant in the community.

While a number of health experts have dismissed concerns that masks might contribute to developmental issues, a Brown University study published last fall found a "significant negative change in cognitive functioning" attributed to pandemic-related changes in the environment that include "the associated economic shut-down, school disruptions, and social distancing, stay-at-home, and mask policies."

Masking is considered undesirable enough that Baker joined the governors of several states last week in ending the school mandates, even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not yet reversed its recommendation that students wear masks at school.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or 413-329-6871.

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