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Berkshire Hills school officials say the vaccine policy is not a mandate. Repeat: Not a mandate

117 people logged into a virtual public hearing regarding Berkshire Hills Regional School District's vaccination proposal

Berkshire Hills Regional School District School Committee

For now, the Berkshire Hills Regional School District School Committee has backed off from any notion of a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for students participating in extracurricular activities.

GREAT BARRINGTON — A sizable contingent of parents logged on to a special public hearing Wednesday evening, united and vocal against a proposed student vaccination mandate that already had been taken off the table.

The disconnect stemmed from an email sent out to the community Dec. 2, by the Berkshire Hills Regional School District, inviting the community to the virtual public hearing. The email encouraged feedback on a proposal that would have prohibited unvaccinated students from extracurricular activities. (Students with documented medical exemptions or a religious exemption would have been exempt.)

But, within the opening minutes of the School Committee meeting, Superintendent Peter Dillon tried to make it clear that the district no longer had wished to pursue the restriction but to instead continue to require nonvaccinated students’ participation in weekly pooled testing. In other words, status quo.

“We don’t want to take away opportunities from kids because of what their parents are doing or not doing around vaccines,” Dillon told The Eagle before the meeting.

Whether some parents who spoke up against the “mandate” had not heard Dillon’s opening statement, that’s not clear. But, the meeting lasted about two hours and 40 minutes, and plenty of those minutes were tense. At one point, a parent asked the School Committee if any of its members owned shares in the pharmaceutical companies responsible for the COVID-19 vaccinations.

“These are really hardworking people who get paid zero and put in an inordinate amount of hours, including tonight,” School Committee Chair Stephen Bannon later commented. “And so you can say what you want. You can have your beliefs. You can have your scientific views, which are different from people to people, different than night and day, but please don’t challenge the ethics of the School Committee unless you have some really strong evidence, which you will not have.”

By the end of the evening, the committee voted 8-1 on the policy wording that Dillon had proposed at the outset, one “just shy of a mandate.” By any measure, the new policy amounts to nothing more than a strong recommendation that students get vaccinated.

The exact wording is: “It is the policy of the Berkshire Hills Regional School District that all eligible students should obtain a vaccination against COVID-19. Failure to obtain a vaccination will not result in exclusion from school.”

And the School Committee tabled a new proposal to require pooled testing of all students in all three district schools, pending input from staff on its feasibility. That proposal will be taken up at the committee’s meeting Dec. 16.

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In all, 117 people were logged on to the meeting, Dillon said at one point. About 30 people spoke up, the majority of them against a vaccine mandate, including some parents who said they got the shots but don’t yet trust that the vaccine is safe for children. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the COVID-19 vaccine for children is “safe and effective.” The CDC signed off on Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5 to 11 on Nov. 2.

Jason Baumgart, of Cheshire, who has kids in the school district, said to “single out” unvaccinated students “is medical discrimination and is not acceptable.”

“The vaccine does not prevent you from getting COVID. It doesn’t prevent you from spreading COVID,” said Sam Stolzar, a parent from Sheffield. “So, to mandate it makes no sense, especially for children where there’s minimal testing, and a lot of potential for things to go wrong.”

“I do not stand for this vaccine mandate,” said Lily Forfa, a school parent from Great Barrington. “And I really question exactly how far the school system is willing to go, basically, with separating students.”

But, Joe Roy, of West Stockbridge, spoke about his young son, Zachary, whom he said nearly had died from the effects of COVID-19 this year.

“Our kids are not immune to this virus,” Roy said. “Sure, it’s rare, and cases are usually mild in children, but I was there. I saw the worst of it. ... All that said, my wife and I were being practical thinkers.

“When the vaccine came to our kids, we were cautious and we had a reservations. We are not doctors; we are not scientists. So, I turned to those people who saved our child’s life and I talked to them. I knew them. I knew their faces. I knew their names. And I asked them, ‘Should we get our children vaccinated?’ And the answer was, unanimously, ‘Yes.’ The bottom line is this: Our children are overwhelmingly safer with the vaccine than without it.”

“I’m presuming that most families on this call have their kids [vaccinated] for polio and measles and mumps and rubella and all these things that we no longer have to worry about,” said Jessica Provenz, a parent from Stockbridge, who said she recently had her 10-year-old son vaccinated against COVID-19. “I think that vaccines work, and I think that you don’t do them for yourself, but you do them because it’s a community issue.”

Erica Mielke, of Great Barrington, clearly had listened to Dillon’s opening statement and the proposal the School Committee was considering.

“What’s being proposed is totally not a mandate,” she said. “No rights are being infringed upon. My blood is boiling, hearing comparisons to racial segregation and racial discrimination, comparisons to the Holocaust. This is ludicrous. … I’ve just been sitting here yelling at my computer.”

Felix Carroll can be reached at fcarroll@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6391.

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