Northampton schools retain mask mandate

  • Ava Springfield, a senior at Northampton High School, signs paperwork while Alexander Lap, a student with the IT Pathways Department at Northampton High School, gets a Chromebook together for Springfield to take. August 2021. STAFF PHOTO / CAROL LOLLIS—

Staff Writer
Published: 3/17/2022 9:41:20 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Following city health officials’ recommendation, the School Committee voted to maintain the public school district’s mask mandate on Thursday night.

The vote came with a request that the Superintendent’s Health Advisory Committee develop guidelines for lifting the mandate and make specific masking recommendations for school activities like field trips.

Committee member Michael Stein was among those who advocated for keeping the mandate, which he said is “one of the few remaining mitigation strategies” against COVID-19. He said lifting the mandate would create a burden for “families like mine” who are more vulnerable to infection than others.

The Board of Health voted March 10 to lift the city’s indoor public mask mandate immediately. Public Health Director Merridith O’Leary said at the time that the decision was supported by “good science” and the most recent data showing a significant decline in COVID-19 case counts since the winter peak of the omicron variant.

From Feb. 26 to March 11, there were 53 cases identified in Northampton and the level of community transmission is now considered “low,” according to the Health Department. By comparison, there were 537 cases between Dec. 23 and Jan. 5.

O’Leary, however, recommended that the school district’s policy remain in effect.

“While the Board of Health recently voted unanimously” to rescind the city’s mandate, O’Leary wrote in a letter read aloud by Stein, “the Health Department and Board of Health continue to recommend wearing of masks when indoors for long periods of time with people who live outside your household,” such as in schools.

Superintendent John Provost presented the “record-breaking” results of a community mask mandate survey launched last Friday. He said the 1,764 responses were the most of any online survey the district has conducted.

According to the survey, 49.4% of students said they were “very comfortable” with optional masking and another 10.6% said they were “somewhat comfortable.” Among caregivers, 50.6% said they were very comfortable and 12.6% said they were somewhat comfortable.

During the meeting’s public comment period, Roz Chapman, a parent of two fourth graders, said “masks work” and the community has a responsibility to protect people with disabilities, everyone who is unable to get vaccinated and those who work in high-risk jobs.

“The pandemic is not over. We’ve made progress as a community over the past two years,” Chapman said, “but to keep our schools equitable for those populations, I would ask that we keep the mandate in place.”

Catherine Potak said her 5-year-old child with special needs was “removed from the lunchroom” on Wednesday for not wearing a mask, which she called unfair “discipline.” She said children “are the least at risk and have carried the most burden,” and advocated for a shift to optional masking.

The school district policy includes exemptions for students who cannot wear masks, Stein said. Several members said the exemption criteria should be reviewed for possible improvements.

Principal defended after walkout

On Wednesday, Northampton High School students staged a walkout to call for the resignation of Principal Lori Vaillancourt, who has taken criticism since last week’s public release of internal school emails from 2020 and 2021 related to the embedded honors math program. During the public comment period at Thursday’s School Committee meeting, several colleagues and parents came to her defense.

Former School Committee member Susan Voss alleged that the emails showed the program was implemented without community input, based on a “manipulative” argument that it would promote student equity. Many of those participating in the walkout agreed with that view and took offense at Vaillancourt’s reference to some members of the Student Union as “asshats” in a March 2021 message.

Andrea Starkoski of Northampton told the School Committee that she is “embarrassed for our community right now,” and the criticism of Vaillancourt is “uncalled for.”

“I was not appalled by the word that Ms. Vaillancourt used, venting frustration to a colleague, about children,” Starkoski said. “I’m more appalled by the amount of effort that went into attacking her publicly in the newspaper and then having 300 children show up and humiliate her in front of the high school.”

Carl Mead, chair of the NHS English department, said Vaillancourt’s public apology last week showed “a level of remorse and contrition” that is “so often lacking in our political discourse these days.” He said Voss’ report was a “cherry-picked” collection of emails that were collected in “bad faith.”

Stacey Blanco, an NHS administrative assistant, sent a letter in defense of Vaillancourt to the School Committee and the Gazette on Thursday. She described the “hatred” directed at Vaillancourt in recent days as “disheartening and gross.”

She wrote that when the COVID-19 pandemic began affecting daily life, “We were expressing how much we LOVE our school families and how essential they are to our students’ upbringing yet look at how these adults and students are treating Principal Vaillancourt.”

School Committee vice chair Gwen Agna made a brief statement that any “personnel issues” that were raised will be addressed through the “proper channels.” She said high school educators would be invited to speak about embedded honors with the curriculum subcommittee.

Brian Steele can be reached at bsteele@gazettenet.com.

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