LENOX — After nearly two hours of intense discussion, debate and dissent, the School Committee deadlocked Monday night on whether to follow state guidance on masking recommendations for students returning to classrooms in three weeks.
Citing “the wide variety of guidances flying around, everyone seems to have decided that school committees are all going to have to figure it out themselves,” said committee member Oren Cass.
In a written memo, Cass suggested that, based on selected data, “Covid restrictions are inappropriate for our schools” and that “some risk has always existed, regardless of Covid-19.”
He also contended that “even basic precautions like distancing and masking” interfere with children’s learning, social and emotional development.
“Our policy should state clearly that we will not go further” except to comply with any federal, state or local mandates, Cass said. “Our children have borne an extraordinary cost over the past year for the worthy cause of protecting others. What we owe them now is the opportunity to enjoy childhood fully.”
But, Dr. Christine Mauro, citing “pretty high risks” for the unvaccinated as hospitalizations and deaths nationally rise “incredibly fast,” urged her committee colleagues to take a position since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has placed Berkshire County at high risk of community transmission.
“All of these things are swirling,” she said. “Actually, we do need a masking policy, which I would strongly prefer over anything more restrictive.” Mauro urged following the state guidance as a minimum, but also suggested mandatory masking for all in the schools.
Resident Ellen Biagini-Loftus strongly advocated community involvement in any committee decisions. “I think you’re making a lot of decisions for families, kids and their lives in the absence of the very people you’re making decisions for,” she said.
Committee member Veronica Fenton stressed that “we were elected to make decisions and to support our professionals who work in our schools, based upon being informed, so, we’ll continue to hear from parents and families as well as having conversations with medical professionals.”
Member Meghan Kirby, certified by the CDC as an infection prevention specialist, stated that “I keep hearing over and over again that we have to eradicate this virus. But, the virus is not going anywhere; it will continue to mutate, just like influenza. We’re going to have to learn how to adjust our lives and live with it.”
As a parent of three children, she emphasized, “I feel very strongly that our children have to be back in school.” Kirby cited a decline in Massachusetts case counts, “so things are trending the right way. … There’s definitely a sense of urgency. Parents have asked me, ‘What’s the plan?’ but I don’t have an answer right now. So, we do need to make a decision and have a rational conversation, and including parents is absolutely key.”
The district’s new superintendent, Marc J. Gosselin Jr., attending the first committee meeting since his tenure began July 1, also emphasized the need to move quickly, pointing out that families and school administrators face logistical challenges.
“As a superintendent but also as a parent, I want to know what’s going on for my own kids,” Gosselin said. “Parents would be able to breathe some kind of collective sigh of relief. Even if it’s not a solution they love, at least they know what to expect.”
Cass argued that for vaccinated people and for children, the delta variant “does not pose a different threat from the kind we’ve seen from all infections and respiratory problems.”
But, Fenton pushed back. “We have to recognize that our children live in communities and they can infect people close to them.” And she urged a close look at the district’s testing policy, including “pooled” (group) testing.
Cass proposed that the committee approve a policy providing as normal a school environment as possible while complying with any potential federal, state and local mandates.
But, Mauro described the proposal as “hanging the School Committee out to dry,” adding that she could only support a motion that would align with the state’s guidance strongly recommending indoor masking while allowing vaccinated students to remain unmasked.
Fenton offered an amendment that would create a policy to support state recommendations on masking, eliminating the word “mandates.”
Gosselin pointed out that two national teachers unions have urged masking, so, “there’s a potential issue with staffing; we could be looking at things like closures if we don’t bring our teachers into the conversation. To start closing the schools because of high rates of absenteeism defeats the whole purpose. I want to make sure we can open the schools and that we have the staff to do so.”
Mary Cherry, president of the Lenox Education Association, cited the statewide Massachusetts Teachers Association call for universal masking, adding that it would make sense for the local union to support that policy.
Cherry noted that her recent survey of her membership showed 70 percent favoring masking for all, with the rest preferring no masking. She plans to “dig deeper with our membership” and would be ready “to engage in any negotiation that would have to take place as a result of that.”
Committee member Robert Munch recommended giving the school administration leeway instead of having the entire School Committee set policies.
Eventually, the amendment offered by Fenton passed, 4-3, reflecting the state Education Department’s current masking recommendations as well as possible future local, state and national mandates.
But, after committee member David Rimmler switched his yes vote on the amendment, Cass’ original motion, as amended, failed by the same margin, even though it was the same as the just-approved amendment. The end result: No policy action by the committee.
Instead, the School Committee will hold a hybrid meeting, incorporating updated information and gathering more public comment, at 6:30 p.m. Monday in Town Hall, with transmission by Zoom.