Stephanie Pouliot: Committee’s discussion on mask mandate anything but robust

Published: 3/24/2022 9:33:16 AM
Modified: 3/24/2022 9:32:25 AM

Northampton School Committee member Gwen Agna ended the March 17 meeting by stating, “I hope that the public will understand that it was not an easy decision,” referring to the committee’s vote to keep the current mask mandate in Northampton’s schools.

Really? From my vantage point, the committee barely debated the mask mandate in any substantive way, but rather hung its decision on a statement from Public Health Director Merridith O’Leary that was generated after a closed door meeting of the Superintendent’s Health Advisory Committee the previous evening and then read into the record by a School Committee member who is a staunch proponent of keeping the mask mandate.

Where was the discussion of the community survey specifically commissioned by the committee to obtain community feedback about in-school masking, which showed strong support across all stakeholders for a mask optional policy? Where was the discussion about the specifics of O’Leary’s statement? Why wasn’t O’Leary at the meeting to field questions from committee members? Why wasn’t there an examination of the statistics specific to Northampton’s school community — vaccination rates, transmission rates, etc. — rather than an inflammatory recitation of carefully cultivated information by one member clearly meant to shame anyone who for one moment thought about adopting a mask optional policy?

Why didn’t the members do their own due diligence regarding transmission rates in area schools that have moved to mask optional? To be clear, I have tremendous empathy for those on both sides of the school mask debate and have no strong feelings either way, despite having children who attend NPS. What is more troubling to me than the decision itself, is the process by which the decision was made.

As someone who has watched nearly every Committee meeting for the past few years, I found the normally high level of preparation and discourse among the members to be lacking. I’m sure it was easier to simply accept O’Leary’s last minute statement in the face of such a challenging decision, but I hope future committee discussions on this topic prove to be more robust than what occurred on March 17th.

Stephanie Pouliot


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