Mask mandate returns in Northampton schools

  • Northampton High School GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 5/10/2022 5:09:13 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Masks are now mandatory again inside Northampton public schools as district officials grapple with “a substantial increase” of COVID-19 transmission, Superintendent John Provost wrote in a letter this week to the school community.

In a three-day period from last Wednesday to Friday, Provost said the number of cases reported to schools or detected through the district’s pooled testing program rose from 64 to 139.

“Throughout the weekend, the District continued to receive information about increased virus activity in the school community,” Provost wrote, and the city Health Department and the state’s Division of Epidemiology and Immunization supported a return to masking.

The Superintendent’s Health Advisory Committee (SHAC) held an emergency meeting on Monday, after which Provost reinstituted the mandate through Friday, May 20. The mandate could be extended if deemed necessary.

“I know there will be a variety of opinions concerning this decision,” Provost wrote. “It is not one that I made lightly. Keeping our school community safe and our schools open and functioning are my most important duties at this time.”

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Hampshire County is experiencing a “medium” level of community transmission. In the seven days prior to May 8, there were 684 cases identified in the county, a nearly 40% increase from the previous week.

In the seven days prior to May 4, Northampton reported 152 cases in the city.

“I believe this intervention must be attempted because the current increase in disease spread is impacting the lives and learning of many within our school community,” Provost wrote.

The organization MaskChoice Pioneer Valley, which opposes compulsory masking in schools, sent a letter to Provost calling his decision “abrupt and unnecessary.”

“We no longer consent to having our children forcibly masked,” the letter, signed by 14 caregivers, reads. “This district risks facing expensive and time-consuming legal action if the ‘mandatory mask’ requirement is not amended to ‘masks are strongly recommended.’”

Emily Boddy, a caregiver affiliated with MaskChoice, said several members of the group reported their children were taken out of class on Tuesday and told to put masks on. Boddy said school officials do not have the legal power to remove a maskless student from the learning environment.

“It’s really all over the map right now, but what Leverett found when they looked into the matter, they found they had no enforcement power under the law,” Boddy said, citing a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the local educators’ union and the School Committee.

The MOU reads in part: “The parties agree and acknowledge that exclusion of students is currently not permissible under the law. The parties acknowledge that the Board of Education and/or State/Federal Government has sole authority to implement exclusion of students as a consequence of failure to wear masks pursuant to a mandate.”

Boddy argued that it is unlikely that COVID-19 transmission is a problem in schools; rather, she said, the data suggest that students and staff are becoming infected elsewhere and that school-based testing is identifying the cases.

“There are serious downsides for children,” Boddy said. “(MaskChoice includes) a family with a child who is hard of hearing. It has been monumental for them. It has been absolutely heartbreaking and devastating for them” throughout the pandemic.

Amherst reported on Tuesday that there are 297 active cases in town, but the Amherst-Pelham Regional School District has not reinstated its mask mandate.

From April 30 to May 2, Amherst public schools reported a total of 12 cases; from May 7-9, the total was 23 cases.

Because of climbing case counts in the state and region, “we are recommending that the entire school community wear a high-quality mask (KN-95 or surgical) when indoors,” Superintendent Michael Morris wrote in a Tuesday letter to the community.

“These types of masks continue to be available free of charge to all students and staff members,” Morris wrote. “In addition, free rapid COVID tests are still available for students and staff through the DESE program.”

He emphasized that the temporary recommendation, made in conjunction with the town’s Health Department, “is not a mask mandate,” and that the goal is to “meet our top priority” of maintaining adequate staffing levels and student attendance through the end of the school year.

The Gateway Regional School District’s mask mandate was lifted March 14.

“At this time, it is not on the (School Committee) agenda to reinstate the mandate but individuals always have the option to decide to wear a mask if they choose,” Superintendent Kristen Smidy said.

The Gazette also reached out to officials at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School and Easthampton Public Schools to inquire about their current mask policies, but did not receive responses.

Brian Steele can be reached at bsteele@gazettenet.com

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