Vaccine mandate Berkshire Hills

A walk-in vaccine clinic for the community at W.E.B. Du Bois Regional Middle School in Great Barrington last spring. The Berkshire Hills Regional School District is considering mandating vaccines to push the roughly 20 percent of unvaccinated students at the high school to get the shots. 

GREAT BARRINGTON — The vaccination rate at Monument Mountain Regional High School has reached the state’s 80 percent threshold, which allows students and staff who have been inoculated against the coronavirus to skip use of masks.

But school officials, worried about having to enforce mask-wearing for the fifth of students who remain unvaccinated, are weighing a vaccine mandate to give those students a push toward getting the shots — in part, so masks can go.

Meanwhile, the numbers across the Berkshire Hills Regional School District’s three schools look good, Superintendent Peter Dillon said Thursday at the School Committee’s regular meeting. Weekly pool testing hasn’t yielded any positive COVID-19 cases, Dillon said, though not all results from this week’s testing are in yet. One student out of school has tested positive.

Dillon said the vaccination rate at Monument is likely higher, given students who might have been vaccinated outside of Massachusetts, and so those numbers are not included in state records accessed by the school nurse. Most elementary students are not eligible for vaccines, unless they are over age 11, and that is likely to change in the next two weeks with federal approval of vaccines for those age five to 11.

The district staff vaccination rate is above 99 percent.

The commissioner of the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education says districts with an 80-percent vaccination rate can go without masks. The committee would have to take a vote if it decides to remove the current mask mandate due to meeting that threshold. But Dillon is worried about a school environment in which the 20 percent of the 530 Monument students who are unvaccinated must wear masks.

“We don’t love that idea,” he said. “From an enforcement standpoint, it’s terrible and it also separates young people and causes a whole host of issues.”

For that reason, the committee will discuss a possible mandate at its Nov. 4 meeting. Dillon said school boards can apply to the state for permission for a mandate if they choose — both Amherst and Cambridge schools opted for this. One person pointed out Thursday that vaccination status shouldn’t matter if the 80 percent threshold is met.

“My understanding is that if people are meeting that 80 percent threshold, then it’s not about vaccinated versus unvaccinated, it’s that somebody has deemed that then it’s safe to go without a mask,” said committee member Corey Sprague. “And so it doesn’t have to become a have and have not, it’s just a personal preference.”

Sprague said she wasn’t necessarily advocating for that. Dillon said the state still requires masks for unvaccinated students and staff.

Berkshire Hills mandates vaccines for staff, masks for everyone at Great Barrington schools

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