Masks should be worn in the Hopkinton Public Schools when students return to class as part of “a layered approach” to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the Board of Health recommended to the School Committee in a joint meeting Wednesday night.
The School Committee is scheduled to vote on the mask policy at its meeting Thursday night (7) at the high school library. It can be viewed on HCAM.
“Our job is to support the School Committee and the school department,” said Health Director Shaun McAuliffe. “At the end of the day, our interest is doing whatever it takes to support the health and success of our students and our academic institutions.”
The state Department of Public Health and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) issued a joint statement July 30 saying that unvaccinated and immunocompromised people should wear masks but shied away from a mandate. By contrast, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommend universal indoor mask use regardless of vaccination status, along with continued prevention practices.
“I’m always going to argue for the implementation of as many layers of protection as we can,” McAuliffe said. “And in this case, I think that face coverings would provide an extra layer of protection.”
Board of Health (BOH) Member Richard Jacobs said the School Committee could implement “a temporary mask mandate” for the beginning of the school year and then re-evaluate in a month or two to see if it is still necessary.
“I think it’s a small price to pay to ensure we have continuity with in-house learning,” he said.
School Committee Chair Nancy Cavanaugh thanked the BOH for its input as the committee prepares to vote on the matter at its Thursday meeting, saying she valued the feedback from a health policy perspective.
BOH Chair Elizabeth Whittemore said McAuliffe and the BOH members could attend the School Committee meeting to provide support. This is a critical time, when the coronavirus could either “surge or plateau,” she said. Because of the CDC recommendation for booster shots issued earlier in the day, Whittemore supported the recommendation for wearing masks in schools.
“We really think that masks are an important weapon in our toolbox,” Whittemore added. She also expressed frustration about the conflicting guidance received and that the decision falls to individual school committees statewide.
“I almost wish they had used the word ‘required’ more in their comments,” she said.
McAuliffe added that once children under age 12 are able to be vaccinated, he would be able to work with the schools to quickly set up vaccination clinics.
Hopkinton has a 95 percent vaccination rate for eligible residents, making it one of the top five communities in the state with populations over 10,000, according to McAuliffe. But with children under 12 not being eligible for vaccination, he said all tools should be used to protect children, including masks, good hygiene and social distancing when possible.
“I believe that we have a very good chance of having a successful school year,” he said. “And a school year not interrupted by high levels of quarantine and/or isolation.”
McAuliffe said he did not believe a mask requirement was necessary for municipal buildings or the town itself due to the high vaccination rates compared to other communities.
“I would argue that the public safety departments went to great lengths to get the town vaccinated and to provide as many opportunities as we could to get our homebound residents vaccinated,” he said. He has ordered a PCR tester and antigen test kits to provide “a significant testing capacity in the community” should the need for future contact tracing arise.
School Committee Member Amanda Fargiano asked if it would be helpful to use fans in the lunchrooms, or if they potentially could circulate the virus into the air if someone had been exposed.
McAuliffe said a fan could be set up at an exit to draw air out of the room. The rate of infection should be “relatively low.” He also suggested opening up outside rooms, but that would be “a significant challenge” due to space issues.
Meg Tyler, also a School Committee member, asked if immunocompromised students should be isolated during lunch.
“If students or staff are immunocompromised, I believe we should keep them separated,” McAuliffe said. “I believe that it is important to protect those that are most vulnerable.”
“We as a school district and a School Committee tomorrow evening have a very, very difficult decision to make,” said Superintendent Carol Cavanaugh. “We do have the luxury of living in a community where our people are very highly vaccinated. But we also have literally thousands of children with us who have been ineligible for vaccination.”
Added Whittemore: “Whatever you decide tomorrow, in three weeks you’ll probably be deciding something else.”