Easthampton schools make masks optional

  • Pepin School, at 4 Park Street in Easthampton. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 3/9/2022 8:47:14 PM
Modified: 3/9/2022 8:46:41 PM

EASTHAMPTON — The School Committee adopted a mask-optional policy at a nearly three-hour virtual meeting Tuesday night with more than 100 people tuning in.  

The updated policy replaces Easthampton Public Schools’ existing policy requiring all students and staff to wear masks in line with guidance and recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the state Department of Public Health.

“Individuals who are vaccinated are not required to wear a mask, but may do so if desired,” according to the policy. “Students and staff returning from five-day quarantine following a positive COVID-19 test must follow strict mask use, other than when eating, drinking or outside, and conduct active monitoring for symptoms, through day 10 of exposure.” 

The policy went into effect Wednesday. 

Approval of the change was not a unanimous decision as School Committee Chairwoman Cynthia Kwiecinski cast the lone dissenting vote, citing concerns for students and staff at the three elementary schools. Committee member Shannon Dunham was absent. 

“I know the city is unmasked, but there is a huge difference between walking into a store and sitting in a classroom with unmasked people for six hours a day,” Kwiecinski said. 

While committee member Megan Harvey voted in favor of the updated policy, she said she wished the policy did not go into effect the day immediately following the meeting so that families would have time to discuss the change. 

Kwiecinski also suggested waiting until the end of the month to adopt a new policy noting that other school districts like Springfield were taking a similar approach or even putting a policy in place for the middle and high schools and waiting for the elementary schools until the end of the month. 

“I’m really concerned about the older buildings; we have one of the oldest buildings in the state. We built a new school because ours were outdated. So that’s a big concern for me,” she said. 

Superintendent Allison LeClair disagreed vehemently with adopting a policy that affected only a portion of the district. 

“I want to be clear: The administration in Easthampton is not interested in a separate mask decision for different grade levels,” said LeClair. “We do not want to micromanage that as a school district. If I have a family has an elementary-age child that’s required to wear a mask and a middle-schooler that is not required to wear a mask, that’s going to be a nightmare for our administrative team to handle.”

The meeting, which extended beyond 2½ hours, began with a public comment period that was almost solely dedicated to discussion on the mask mandate. Harvey also noted that she received a significant amount of community correspondence, much of which touched on the mask policy. 

“Please remove the masks, make it optional. … Let the others go free,” said resident Shelly Fournier, recommending that people watch a YouTube video of an open dialogue that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had hosted. “They in Florida do not recommend any COVID shots for a healthy kid, they are really against this.” 

Jean Pao Wilson, who said she is a clinical psychologist and a resident of Easthampton for the past two decades, questioned why the mandate remained in place when the city’s as well as the state Department of Education and Secondary Education’s had expired, and suggested that the reason it remained in place was a monetary gain for the school district. She also alleged that the mandate went against the U.S. Constitution and the Nuremberg Code. 

A speaker who identified himself as ninth-grade student had a different opinion, citing the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation as well as statistics from the Washington Post. He spoke about how stressful it was to see his classmates and even a few teachers not wearing masks properly. 

“I’ve been talking to other students and many of us agree that the mask mandate needs to stay in place,” the student said during the meeting. “In research, I’ve found that this is definitely the case as omicron (the latest coronavirus variant) is most certainly not the end.”

For those students and staff who choose to continue wearing masks, committee members advocated a need to ensure that kids felt safe and protected.  With the updated policy, masks will still be required in all school health offices. 

The policy also strongly recommends that individuals who remain unvaccinated or are otherwise immunocompromised wear face coverings in school buildings, and on school grounds, even when social distancing is observed. 

Emily Thurlow can be reached at ethurlow@gazettenet.com.

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