PITTSFIELD — Superintendent Joseph Curtis says Pittsfield Public Schools “has no position” on whether to continue masking requirements in city schools past the end of the month, after the state announced Wednesday that the mandate from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education will lapse at that point.
Under the district’s current masking policy, Curtis is the sole decider on whether students and staff will be required to wear masks. Curtis told the School Committee on Wednesday night that he and other superintendents across the state were given only about an hour’s notice that a policy change was coming from the DESE before the public announcement was made and that he still is “thoughtfully considering” his options.
The superintendent noted that the phasing out of masking at the return of the February school break likely will be a precarious moment for the district’s response to the coronavirus.
“In every case, after vacations there has been a spike in cases,” Curtis said.
He said that if School Committee members wanted to understand the impact of a case spike on schools, they need only look to the return from winter break when the district had to close Taconic High School and Reid Middle School because of staff shortages from sick and quarantined staff members.
A statewide mandate requiring almost all K-12 students and staff to wear masks in schools will be lifted at the end of the month, the Baker administration announced Wednesday, marking a major transition nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic.
Melissa Campbell, a Herberg Middle School teacher and president of United Educators of Pittsfield, said that she would be discussing the change with the teachers union Executive Board and building representatives before commenting on masks. The Pittsfield Federation of School Employees did not respond for a request for comment by press time.
The news of the policy change had only just started to reach parents as they waited in car pickup lines at local elementary schools Wednesday afternoon. Several parents said they would like Pittsfield schools to continue to require masking at least through the end of the school year.
Chloe Francoeur said that when school started this year, she was thankful the district required masking.
“I just think it’s children,” Francoeur said. “They’re germy already, so, the masks are necessary.”
Waiting at the pickup line at Crosby Elementary School, Francoeur said that her 9-year-old daughter probably would like to ditch the mask, but “she knows that it’s for her own good, her own health.”
A few cars ahead, Sarah Edwards had similar thoughts about masking.
“COVID’s ramping up like crazy,” Edwards said. “I don’t think it’s a cure-all, but I definitely think that it helps for them to wear masks.”
Edwards said that while she is hopeful that the district will make the decision to continue masking in schools, her 10-year-old and 12-year-old will be sent to school with a mask either way.
“Honestly, I think they wouldn’t wear them if they were given the choice, but that’s why I think it needs to be mandated — they need to wear them,” Edwards said.
Other parents in line said they weren’t bothered by the current masking requirements and would follow the district decision on the issue.
In a memo to school districts about the policy change, the DESE noted that students still will be required to wear masks on school buses as part of a federal mandate. Curtis also noted that masking still would be required in school nurse offices for the same reason.
During the news conference announcing the change, DESE Commissioner Jeffrey Riley asked that schools help create a “supportive environment that respects everyone’s choice to do what is most appropriate and comfortable for them.”
State officials said the decision to relax masking requirements was made in consultation with vaccination data and a desire to move back toward a pre-coronavirus pandemic normal in Massachusetts schools.
“During the last two years, the impact of COVID on children has caused a strain to their mental health, emotional well-being and academic success,” Riley said. “We are relieved to now be in a place where we can now provide young people additional relief from COVID-19 restrictions so they continue to work towards normalcy in the classroom.”
The commissioner touted the power of vaccines and Massachusetts’ place as a state with “one of highest vaccination rates among you people in the country.”
Data from recent state vaccination reports does show an uptick in vaccinations, but vaccination rates among elementary-age children have not met the 80 percent vaccination rates that the DESE previously had required for schools to drop mask mandates. (Riley said that, as of Wednesday, about 40 schools had reached that vaccination benchmark.)
In the commonwealth, 51 percent of 5- to 11-year-olds have received at least one shot. Those figures are better with students ages 12 to 15 and 16 to 19: One-shot vaccination rates are at 83 percent and 82 percent, respectively.
In Pittsfield, those rates are lower. There are 7,044 children ages 5 to 19 in the city. About 70 percent have one shot of a coronavirus vaccine and about 58 percent are vaccinated fully. Those rates are much lower in children ages 5 to 11: 50 percent have received one shot and only about 41 percent are vaccinated fully, according to the Department of Public Health’s Feb. 1 vaccination report.
Pittsfield schools registered a large spike in case rates as the omicron variant surged through the country. More recently, daily case counts have improved, dropping near to the numbers seen in October.
While the most recent district case count is promising, the accuracy of these counts has become more questionable in recent weeks. The district changed its testing protocols in late January and ended its test-and-stay and contact-tracing programs. Families that have opted in to the district’s at-home testing program now have to self-report any positive COVID test results.