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Clarence Fanto: To mask or unmask. That is the question facing Lenox school leaders

Students sitting at desks wearing masks

With the omicron surge subsiding, school districts are beginning to ask the question: When can our kids lose the masks? There is no easy answer.

LENOX — “I’m not concerned with facts, not if they interfere with my beliefs.”

So said Agnes Van Rhijn, the principal character on HBO’s “The Gilded Age,” portrayed by Christine Baranski.

Though the scene was set in 1882, it’s a great quote for our modern times as we observe the next act in our marathon COVID-19 drama: When Can We Unmask?

As a bellwether for Berkshire County school districts, the Lenox School Committee will be exploring this fraught issue at a public forum this Tuesday at 5:30. With the vaccination rate at 81 percent among middle and high school students, the administration may decide whether to apply for a state waiver from the current masking requirement for indoor classes and activities.

At last Monday’s School Committee meeting, viewers witnessed a preview of the debate likely to occur.

The word “normal” was tossed around like a football among committee members.

For example, Oren Cass strongly advocated de-masking, saying it would be a “disservice” to students not to.

“Obviously we’re still going to comply with whatever mandates, requirements or laws are on the books, but now there’s a clear expectation that business will be returning to normal,” he said. “It’s a political choice, we can all look at the exact same data and we’re going to have to decide if we’re ready to give kids normal school back and if not now, when would we be ready?”

Committee member Meghan Kirby commented that transitioning away from pandemic risk-reduction policies “isn’t just about masks or no masks — as a whole, we really need to look at these policies and start deconstructing them.”

However, Robert Munch declared: “We’re not going back to normal; there is no normal. There will still have to be measures for vulnerable kids. We can improve things, loosen things up a great deal, but never like it was two years ago.”

Lenox Schools Superintendent Marc J. Gosselin Jr., emphasized that “we do have to start looking at life beyond COVID, I can’t wait for that day, but at the same time, one of the things that still sticks with me personally is seeing the number of student absences just start to smooth out a little bit. … Whatever decision we make, I want to make sure we’re trying to take that into account that as well.”

The absentee rate in Lenox has been relatively moderate, but some families remain reluctant to send their kids to school until the omicron variant recedes further.

Here are some other points worth considering:

• “Policies that were developed for the fall semester need to be updated to reflect where things stand now,” says Dr. Westyn Branch-Elliman, an infectious diseases specialist who advises state education leaders on COVID and helped develop the mask policy. “We are going to have to learn to live with the virus. And that means making some hard decisions about what mitigation measures we want to maintain in the long term.”

• Another adviser to the state, Dr. Elissa Perkins, director of emergency medicine infectious disease management at Boston Medical Center, calls the current mask requirement obsolete because it is based on vaccination rates. And while the shots proved effective at preventing severe disease and death, they fell short in preventing transmission.

• Both advisers advocate making masks optional now. Writing in the Washington Post, they suggested schools should be allowed to switch to a policy of “personal choice regarding self-protection and supporting those who choose to remain masked,” rather than continuing the mandates.

But, as the Boston Globe reported, many other infectious disease and public health specialists believe it’s premature for schools to remove masks in Massachusetts because infection rates remain too high. State data show that while cases among school-age children have declined in the past two weeks, they are still more than twice the levels before omicron hit in late November.

One specialist contacted by the Globe touted Nevada’s “simple and clear mask policy.” Dr. Jonathan Levy, chairman of the department of environmental health at Boston University’s School of Public Health, explained that the state requires indoor masking when infection rates are substantial or high in a county, based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance. If the rates go below that level for two consecutive weeks, the masks aren’t required.

“You could certainly envision a policy like that for schools,” Levy said. “Policies that are clear, straightforward and logical are more likely to be accepted.”

Robert Hecht, an epidemiology professor at Yale University’s School of Public Health, put it this way: “Balance technical perfection and wonkiness with the ability to get communities to buy in.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics and its Massachusetts chapter continue to urge masks in school. Dr. Lloyd Fisher, president of the state chapter, envisions a mask model that considers whether hospitals are swamped with patients.

Cohasset, a South Shore town where 95 percent of eligible residents are fully vaccinated, lifted masking requirements for vaccinated high school students and staff in December, extending that to its middle school on Jan. 18. The next day, the town’s school committee voted to allow unvaccinated students and staff in those buildings to remove masks even though the town’s Board of Health strongly recommended masks continue for everyone for the time being.

Many students chose to continue wearing masks, according to the Cohasset School Committee Chairman Craig MacLellan. He pointed out that while the infection rate has declined, “there’s a ton of anxiety that people harbor around this. This is a challenging circumstance and we don’t purport to have the answer.”

As the Lenox schools weigh their decision, it’s worth noting that only 11 days of school remain this month, since a one-week vacation starts Feb. 21.

Updated guidance from the state Education Department is due before Feb. 28. Patience and prudence would suggest waiting for that information.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.

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