200 sign petition urging Northampton School Committee to ditch its own masking policy

  • AP

Staff Writer
Published: 10/27/2022 5:38:30 PM
Modified: 10/27/2022 5:38:16 PM

NORTHAMPTON — A member of the city’s Ad Hoc COVID Advisory Committee is urging the School Committee to ditch its masking policy in favor of the state’s guidelines, so members can focus on other educational challenges in the district.

“Well over half of the School Committee’s time is spent on COVID issues,” said Josh Silver, who joined the COVID advisory committee last August. “Our city is virtually one of the only school districts in the state that is rejecting the state’s COVID guidelines in favor of their own highly technical policy. We should be turning to the experts and these people (the School Committee) are not the people to do it.”

In an online petition, which he intends to present to School Committee members, Silver has collected more than 200 signatures from residents demanding committee members abandon their efforts to create their own COVID policies.

“We are pro-science, and we believe in following the state’s science-based approach; not a policy set by a committee not qualified to do so. The state guidelines will become stricter if the COVID situation worsens,” he said.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education lifted the statewide mask requirement on Feb. 28. An Aug. 15 joint memorandum on COVID-19 for K-12 schools from DESE Commissioner Jeffrey C. Riley and Margaret Cooke, commissioner of the Department of Public Health, also reinforces that there is no statewide requirement for masking in schools, apart from in school health offices, and does not recommend implementing universal mask requirements.

The current policy follows the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. Under that policy, the district can mandate mask-wearing when it’s required by law; when the community level of COVID-19 is “high” according to the CDC, and until the level has reached “low” for two weeks; when the superintendent “determines that school data indicates increased transmission and student and staff absenteeism will have a negative impact on student learning”; or when the School Committee recommends masking based on the advice of the superintendent, the COVID committee or the Superintendent’s Health Advisory Committee.

The district’s masking policy was crafted by elected and career school officials based on CDC guidelines.

Last month, the COVID advisory committee recommended that the School Committee adopt DESE’s guidelines, which were crafted in consultation with infectious disease physicians, the state Department of Public Health, and other medical experts.

Silver said that the School Committee has instead “dismissed and punted” the recommendation to the rules and policy subcommittee.

However, Michael Stein, who serves on the COVID advisory committee and the School Committee, said in a previous interview with the Gazette that reviewing written changes before voting on a new policy is “the normal order of business.”

Silver contends that district students “suffer when they are forced to follow procedures that are out of step with science and the mainstream.”

“Our children’s education and their health are too important for us to ignore this issue or allow it to get stuck in subcommittees and other procedural roadblocks. Heeding our request will also allow the committee to address our many other educational challenges instead of trying to set highly complex health policy,” Silver’s petition letter reads.

The petition further encourages those who support the COVID advisory committee’s recommendation need to show the School Committee that there are hundreds of them that are united and request that the School Committee “act responsibly in the public interest.”

School Committee Vice Chairperson Gwen Agna said she was aware of the petition, but isn’t sure she’d sign it if she was asked. The topic, she says, is a contentious one.

“I know people feel strongly for both sides — it’s a difficult position to be in,” she said. “All we want to do is keep our students healthy and keep our schools open.”

Agna said the School Committee will discuss its COVID policy at the Thursday, Nov. 10 meeting.

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