Superintendent Marc Gosselin

Marc J. Gosselin Jr., the new superintendent of Lenox schools, attends his first School Committee meeting Monday. "I want to underscore that we have to do whatever it takes to keep schools open," Gosselin says.

LENOX — Six weeks into his new post as schools superintendent in Lenox on a four-year contract starting at $160,000 for year one, Marc J. Gosselin Jr. confronts his first major test as leader of the district.

It’s a challenge faced by superintendents throughout the nation: How to reconcile conflicting views from families, school committees, state education departments, staff and teachers unions as the COVID-19 delta variant-mutation pandemic drags on.

The issue, fraught with politics, ideology, trust or distrust of science and pure emotion, involves whether to mask, who, if anyone, should do so, what kind of testing and vaccination policies are needed, and any other safety measures that should be considered as the school year is about to begin.

Last Monday, the Lenox School Committee deadlocked on policy recommendations. The group will try again this Monday, at a hybrid public forum starting at 6:30 p.m. at the Town Hall Selectmen’s meeting room, which has a capacity of about 25. The meeting, with resident comment at the beginning, will be available via Zoom at tinyurl.com/47tdsdr4.

The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and state Department of Public Health strongly recommend that all students in kindergarten through grade 6 wear masks when indoors, except students who cannot do so due to medical conditions or behavioral needs. Masks are not necessary outdoors, and can be removed indoors while eating.

The departments also “strongly recommend” that unvaccinated staff in all grades, unvaccinated students in grades 7 and above, and unvaccinated visitors wear masks indoors. But, the recommendation also allows vaccinated students to remain unmasked.

Last Monday, the Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee, serving Great Barrington, Stockbridge and West Stockbridge, went further, mandating COVID vaccinations for all staff members by Sept. 15, and requiring anyone in the three school buildings to wear masks, whether or not they are inoculated.

Gosselin, 43, a native of Dracut, north of Lowell, began his career teaching science in fourth and eighth grade in Methuen, and obtained a master’s degree in education administration at Penn State University. He has held teaching, principal and central office administrative positions in Stroudsburg, Pa., and, for the past six years, at the regional 13,000-student North Penn School District outside Philadelphia.

His father, Marc Sr., just retired as a lieutenant on the Dracut Police force, where his younger brother, Jon, recently was promoted to lieutenant.

Priced out of the expensive Lenox and South Berkshire sellers’ market, much to his disappointment, he, his wife and their two children, 7 and 9, have settled into an affordable home in Simsbury, Conn., about an hour away. Gosselin said he became used to a similar commute during his entire career and welcomes the chance to collect his thoughts en route and decompress on the return trip.

On Thursday, I sat down with the superintendent for a conversation. Excerpts follow, edited for length:

Q: What is the latest guidance from local health experts and suggestions from your administrative team ahead of Monday’s School Committee meeting?

A: I asked our folks what strategies would be most effective, enable us to continue to operate efficiently, maximize high-quality education, minimize disruptions and distractions and, most importantly, keep the schools open. That has to be our No. 1 goal. If we don’t make the right strategic moves, that becomes at risk.

I want to underscore that we have to do whatever it takes to keep schools open. We’re surveying parents to get a sense of where they stand, what strategies they favor, and do they believe in universal masking or masking for our pre-K-to-grade 6 students while allowing grades 7 to 12 to have the option to not mask if they’re vaccinated, or do the parents say no masks at all.

Q: What’s your understanding of how much leeway you and other superintendents have to set a customized local approach based on the state guidelines?

A: I don’t think it’s inappropriate to follow what the state says, but it removes any flexibility for a local policy that would necessitate a different approach.

School committees can adopt the state policy or not. And if they don’t, then the superintendent would have to make some call. The Massachusetts Association of Superintendents advises us to work with our boards and committees to have them adopt the policy so that way, you also have a mandate from the public that this is something the community is behind.

I think a policy would be nice that allows some degree of flexibility so we could customize. The advice from our group of local medical experts is that masking at this point makes sense, and we should have the flexibility to circle back and re-evaluate, in a month. They said there’s a very good chance we can get by this rough patch with the delta variant and be able to relax our guidelines in the future. Getting a lot of voices in the conversation is important to me.

Q: What was the consensus you heard from your administrators, such as the principals?

A: They were unanimous that we should adopt universal masking of students and staff, irrespective of vaccination status, for the opening of school and continue to embrace pool testing, probably the best mechanism to evaluate the effectiveness of any approach we take.

We’d like to figure out creative ways to incentivize people to participate in pool testing. Last year, about 50 percent of students and staff participated. For athletes, it’s likely to be mandatory.

Q: What’s your view of a decision evolving on required vaccinations?

A: My sense is that there’s not a lot of interest in a vaccine requirement for staff and students at this time. We’d certainly like to encourage vaccinations, find ways to incentivize folks, and try to enhance opportunities for sites at large public buildings.

Q: Do you hope for a policy decision from the School Committee next week?

A: It would be great to have a definitive meeting; we want to be able to get information to parents so they, our administrators and teachers can plan for the school year, and we want to start talking to children, to practice and build up tolerance for being masked again. I think sometimes we project our adult mindsets onto our children when, in fact, they’re adaptable and resilient.

Q: How has the pandemic issue affected the start of your tenure?

A: Whenever we collaborate, we create better decisions, and it allows us to come together and embrace that model, because there are going to be other hard decisions we’ll have to make beyond COVID. But, what we know works is bringing stakeholders together, and it allows me to show people that it’s a value I have and I don’t just talk the talk, but I walk the walk.

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