LENOX — The School Committee has voted to adopt a COVID “mitigation policy” requiring face coverings by everyone inside the district’s buildings and on school transportation until further notice.
The mandate was endorsed by the committee on a 5-2 vote Monday night, during a public hybrid Zoom meeting attended by nearly 160 residents. It is adapted from a document furnished by the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, said Schools Superintendent Marc J. Gosselin Jr.
The Lenox district also is strongly recommending that students participate in pooled testing, which helps identify potential cases by sampling small groups at the same time.
Based on a meeting last week with local health officials, the superintendent noted strong support from the medical community for a universal masking policy.
Gosselin explained that the health team found that the current COVID delta variant’s virus-transmission risks are “particularly troubling,” with trends heading in the wrong direction.
School Committee Chairman Robert Vaughan cited widespread support from the public for face coverings, based on a survey of district families last week, as well as correspondence from residents.
Gosselin reported that the survey yielded responses from 369 family members, strongly favoring vaccination and masking as the most effective tools to fight the coronavirus pandemic. He also noted unanimous support from the district’s school administrative team for a face-covering mandate.
The new policy states that the Lenox Public School District “is committed to providing a safe environment in schools during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Maintaining a safe environment is critical to the District’s ability to return students to a full-time classroom learning experience.”
The policy incorporates guidance and recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the state’s Department of Public Health, as well as a team of local public health officials.
Ahead of the vote, School Committee member Dr. Christine Mauro, a strong advocate of the universal face-covering mandate, called it a responsible approach.
“I was very upset that we failed to reach any policy decision last week,” she said. “I would consider it a failure of leadership on the part of the committee to let down all the people depending on us tonight and come out of this meeting without passing a policy motion.”
Member Veronica Fenton supported the mandate based on a wide spectrum of guidance from international, national, state and local health leaders. She recommended periodic assessment at future committee meetings “while in the meantime not risking the health and wellness of our children and their family members.”
Offering an amendment requiring weekly review of the policy by the district administration, continuing it only if the county remains in a CDC category of substantial or high risk of virus spread, committee member Oren Cass voiced his position that decisions should be based “on a rational and data-based basis, modeling and communicating that to our children as well.”
Asserting that he was not motivated by a “freedom-versus-safety” argument, Cass expressed “great concern” that the committee discussion had not included “rational thinking about risk.”
Committee members rejected the proposed amendment 5-2.
Another amendment proposed by Cass would have limited the face-covering requirement to students in prekindergarten through grade 6. But, the motion did not receive a second from another committee member, thus, taking it off the table.
The committee then adopted the face-covering policy on a 5-2 vote.
During the public comment portion of the meeting, resident Jim Harwood stated that “we’d all love this to be gone, but it isn’t. There’s a long track record of requiring vaccinations for people to attend public schools. I can’t send my kid to school with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, because it might affect somebody else. While those may seem like sacrificing personal liberty, to me, it seems like a very small thing to ask.”
He suggested that masking should continue “until we don’t need to. It’s time for us to put our personal liberties aside and make sure our kids can go to school.”
Dr. Georgianne Valli-Harwood described face coverings as “a minor inconvenience which has clearly benefited our population.”
“Educators and staff typically aren’t people who think they have to put their life on the line when they go to work,” resident Kristen Moriarty told committee members. “A lot of jobs are really dangerous, and being a teacher shouldn’t be one of them. Whatever has to be done for the most people to feel safe going to school, I encourage you to do.”
“Mandating masks as schools open is a no-brainer,” said Dr. Sharon Mozian, adding that “kids need to be at in-person schools to thrive. This needs to be our No. 1 priority.”
She contended that “making mask-wearing optional will not only be ineffective in protecting against viral spread, but it will force our children to navigate an unfair and burdensome social situation needlessly. We can’t, and shouldn’t, put them in that position.”
The School Committee plans to discuss a potential vaccination policy guideline at its Aug. 30 meeting.