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School Committee votes to make masks optional at Hoosac Valley

Meeting

The Hoosac Valley School Committee voted Thursday evening to make masks optional on buses and in school buildings. The state continues to require masks to be worn in school health offices, as well as for students returning from quarantine who are in their sixth through 10th day after an exposure.

CHESHIRE — School Committee members began their Thursday meeting wearing masks, but most removed them moments after voting to make masks optional at the Hoosac Valley Regional School District.

The committee voted 6-1 to rescind its mask mandate, which the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education had required until Monday. Most districts since have made masks optional on buses and in school buildings, and Hoosac Valley is the latest to do so.

Bethany DeMarco, vice chair of the committee, thanked community members ahead of the vote, noting that “this has been emotional for everyone.”

“It’s great to sort of see the light at the end of the tunnel,” DeMarco said. I just want to remind the families at home to do their due diligence. We have these tests available. I really want people to just keep being mindful that it can get really dangerous if we head into a spike again.” 

The DESE continues to require that masks be worn in school health offices, as well as for students returning from quarantine who are in their sixth through 10th day after an exposure.

Parents who would like a student to wear a mask can let the school know, and schools will provide the student with one reminder but will not serve as “mask police,” Superintendent Aaron Dean said. The rest is up to individuals.

“We won’t tolerate harassment of others for not wearing a mask or for wearing a mask, and we will impose our handbook and our guidelines to make sure that doesn’t happen,” Dean said. “That’s one thing we want to make clear.”

Member Erin Milne, who cast the lone dissenting vote, had suggested tying a mask-optional policy to metrics, such as for a percentage of students participating in protective measures, which include vaccination and testing. The student vaccination rate of about 45 percent of the district, she said, falls below those of other districts.

Milne said that beyond protecting individual students, another consideration should be to create a welcoming public health environment, including for students who live with someone who is at high risk for infection or who are at high risk themselves. 

“They don’t have a chance to opt out of an environment with lots of people with no masks in a community-mandated setting, such as a school, in a way that they do outside of school,” Milne said. “They can’t have that choice and that freedom because ... a school is compulsory.”

Members Mike Henault and Nannette Reid said they had concerns with using metrics to determine a mask-optional policy. Both said that many parents likely already have decided whether to vaccinate a student, and Reid added that students have contracted the virus, regardless of vaccination status.

During a public comment period, seven of the eight people who spoke expressed support for ending the mask mandate. Many framed their position in terms of parent choice, and a few said that returning to a sense of normalcy would benefit students’ mental health.

“It’s not fair,” Justin Fitzpatrick said about the mandate. “These are my children, and it’s my choice. ... I am letting you know that my children will no longer be wearing masks either on the bus or in the school, and there will be issues if my children are forced to wear a mask while they are in school.”

Dean said early in the meeting that the DESE change means that the school no longer could enforce a mask mandate. When asked about her school, Hoosac Valley High School Principal Colleen Byrd said that “about half the high school is not wearing the masks anyway.” The high school has followed Dean’s guidance to politely ask students to wear their masks, Byrd said, and she added that sports teams have competitions over the weekend with other schools that do not require masks.

Principals said they would communicate the new policy to parents at their respective schools.

Danny Jin, a Report for America corps member, is The Eagle’s Statehouse news reporter. He can be reached at djin@berkshireeagle.com, @djinreports on Twitter and 413-496-6221.

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