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Is it time to shed the masks and other COVID precautions in Lenox schools? Some say yes

Lenox Middle and High School entrance

With COVID case numbers declining, Lenox School Committee members are looking ahead to a day when students can shed their masks.

LENOX — As COVID caseloads decline, the School Committee is actively debating whether the time is right to dial back some of the pandemic health and safety policies, such as masking.

That was the hot topic at this week’s school board meeting as Superintendent Marc J. Gosselin Jr., noted that state education policies are migrating toward home testing for students and staff. Contact tracing also has been discontinued.

Full vaccination in the school community is up to 81 percent at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School and 55 percent at Morris Elementary for the eligible K-5 students who have had two doses.

With the middle and high school rate now above the state’s minimum threshold of 80 percent, a policy in effect through this month, discussions can now begin on easing masking requirements there, School Committee Chairman Robert Vaughan pointed out. The school can apply from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education for an automatic waiver from compulsory indoor masking for all academic and other activities.

While the school board would seek buy-in from the district’s Joint Labor-Management Committee on Health and Safety, “what’s left out of that conversation is parents,” Gosselin noted. He suggested surveying families on their views “to help us make a more sound decision and to have more voices in the conversation.”

In addition to considering whether the time has come to remove masks, School Committee member Robert Munch urged discussion on “what’s the trigger point to putting them back on” if necessary.

The committee will hold a special public meeting at Town Hall and via Zoom at 5:30 p.m. Feb. 8 to continue the discussion and potentially make decisions on an “off-ramp” for some COVID- related health and safety measures.

Committee member Oren Cass said leaving the current policies in place for the next several weeks would be doing “a disservice” to middle and high school students. He also noted that an agreement already is in place with the Lenox Education Association, the bargaining unit for teachers and other staff, to reconsider masking after the 80 percent full-vaccination threshold is reached at the middle and high school.

Cass urged broadening the discussion beyond masking to other policies related to easing the impact of COVID in the schools, such as lunchroom seating.

“What is it that we think we’re accomplishing at this point, on whose behalf and at what cost?” he asked. “For the past two years, we’ve asked children to bear extraordinary burdens — despite them not being the ones who are especially at risk — for the sake of those who are vulnerable in the community.”

Veronica Fenton, the committee’s vice chairman, agreed that “we definitely need to move in some kind of a direction, it keeps feeling like it’s possible,” but urged that parents be included in the conversation. She also suggested encouraging and supporting students and staff members who wish to continue masking.

Fenton also advocated attention to the findings of Tri-Town Health, the regional agency serving Lee, Lenox and Stockbridge, as well as to state Education Department guidance.

Based on feedback from middle and high school Principal Michael Knybel, Gosselin suggested that normal lunchtime cafeteria seating could be restored at the school.

The superintendent also proposed calling attention to the balance between risk-reduction policies and the social-emotional health and development of students. “Some students are fearful of taking off masks, also a psychological thing they have to wrestle with,” he said.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.

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