Masks staying on in Northampton schools pending health board action

  • Main Street and Northampton City Hall, Northampton. Photographed on Thursday, June 24, 2021.

Staff Writer
Published: 5/24/2022 6:08:56 PM
Modified: 5/24/2022 6:06:57 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Public school students and staff could find out within days if the district’s reinstated mask mandate will continue despite a threat of legal action by a group of concerned caregivers.

On May 10, Superintendent John Provost imposed a 10-day mask mandate in response to rising COVID-19 case counts in the schools; on May 20, he said the mandate would be extended at least through the date of the next Board of Health meeting.

“In consideration of the continued disease spread within our schools and the potential for new city-wide guidance from the Board of Health,” Provost wrote to the school community on Friday, “the District will maintain the current mask requirement until the Board is able to meet to provide further guidance.”

The Board of Health is scheduled to meet virtually on Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. Agenda items include discussions about a “Mask Advisory and Communication plan” and “Recommendations for pharmacies and grocery stores to have mask-only hours.”

The local organization MaskChoice Pioneer Valley has sent a letter to district officials urging a reversal of the mandate because “the District exceeded its authority by reinstating the mask mandate, and as such, it is unenforceable.”

Last week, the school district identified 18 cases of COVID-19 through its in-school testing programs and 78 positive results were reported to the district from May 11-18.

“We have had over 1,600 staff absences and 4,400 student absences over the past 4 weeks,” Provost wrote on Friday. “A large portion of these are related to COVID, and these numbers are much higher than normal. At times, it has been difficult to keep schools open.”

Provost told the Gazette that staff absences are up about 40% from the comparable period prior to the pandemic, and “we were only able to find subs for about 21% of staff who were out last month as compared to a pre-COVID sub fill rate of about 65%.”

Staff can be pulled from their primary assignments to cover “critical shortages,” Provost said. Administrative staff sometimes take over in a classroom and teachers may need to give up their prep periods to fill in for a colleague.

The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) allows school districts to set their own mask policies.

DESE has reported steadily climbing COVID-19 case counts in Massachusetts public schools since March, with 14,878 cases among students and 4,090 among staff from May 12-18. Two months ago, from March 10-16, there were 1,597 student cases and 425 among staff.

Northampton reported 152 cases citywide in the week prior to May 4, according to the health department. From May 16-21, there were 170 cases in the city.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers all of Massachusetts to be at a “high” level of community transmission except for Hampshire, Hampden and Bristol counties, which are all at a “medium” level.

‘Judicial intervention’

After the school mask mandate was continued, MaskChoice Pioneer Valley sent Provost and the School Committee a letter written by Newton attorney Carla Salvucci, arguing that the district has no authority to mandate masking and that its policies on face coverings are too vague.

“Based on a review of all available materials, including state and local policy as well as recordings of School Committee meetings, the recently enacted mask mandate, which departs from State and Local guidance, is arbitrary and capricious,” the letter reads, contending that it cannot be enforced because it “exceeds the authority” of a masking policy that was enacted in March.

A press release from MaskChoice about the three-page letter refers to “ambiguous and inconsistent metrics informing the decision” and states that “students were removed from classrooms for non-compliance with a mask mandate that was not legally implemented.”

Salvucci asked district officials to explain the legal authority to remove unmasked students from the classroom or promise in writing that “students electing to forgo masking will not be excluded from school and deprived of their right to free appropriate public education.”

“While Mask Choice maintains that these issues can be resolved through clarification from the District, it has not ruled out the possibility of judicial intervention as it firmly believes that the emotional, educational and developmental consequences of forced masking are too severe to ignore,” the letter reads, asking for a response by Friday, May 27.

The school year ends June 27.

Provost, in an email to the Gazette, said he does not “believe that students have been removed from the learning environment. I am aware of two cases across the district where students were counseled by office staff and returned to class, but no cases where students were removed from class.”

Provost said the district will respond to the MaskChoice letter “when it has had the opportunity to analyze the concerns expressed therein.”

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

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