Reading, MA — On the recommendation of School Superintendent Thomas Milaschewski, the School Committee voted 6-0 to end the mask mandate in schools as of 12:01 am on February 28th.
The subject, third on the committee’s agenda, began with committee chair Tom Wise outlining how the issue would be tackled. He said they would begin with a presentation by the school administration, followed by comments and debate by school committee members. Next would be comments by private citizens, limited to those who signed up in advance to speak and each limited to two minutes.
Dr. Milaschewski began his remarks by thanking the town for its support. He offered special thanks to the staff and, especially, the nurses. He continued, saying that he and the staff have been engaged in complex conversations, encouraging differing points of view. He recognizes that “all don’t see eye to eye, but we all want the same thing for our schools.”
He then explained the logistics of rescinding the mandate. First, he said, masks would still be required for buses, health offices, and waiting rooms. Also, the mandate remains in place for five days after isolation and is recommended for those who are not vaccinated. The administration reserves the right to return to mask usage in short-term cases where spikes in the virus are identified: individual classes or sports teams, for example. He said the administration would be driven by the data.
The schools will continue weekly pooled testing and testing for those with symptoms. A drive for booster shots will also continue.
The administrative staff continued by explaining the rationale for the recommendation. First, it is being asked to do so at this time in order to align with DESE recommendations and DPH guidelines which call for an end to the mandate on Feb. 28. The metrics are good. Most of the staff members are vaccinated, as are the students. The high school rate is at 88%, and 36% boosted. The middle schools are above 80%, and elementary schools stand at 70%.
Next came answers to many frequently asked questions. First was “Why Feb. 28?” In addition to alignment with DESE recommendations, last year showed no spike after the February vacation.
A question was asked concerning Rise students, the youngest population. The school recommends continued masking for now. In all, the administration feels it is time to move forward with a model of personal responsibility.
Each committee member made a statement. Chuck Robinson thanked the administration for the thoughtful and thorough analysis and offered his full support of the recommendation. Sarah McLaughlin echoed Robinson’s feelings and added that “with such high vaccination rates, we all need a break.” Recognizing that the decision is not risk-free, she said we need a plan to re-institute if necessary, making data-driven decisions. She stated that she is in favor of the recommendation except that she would have preferred a March 7 date.
Shawn Brandt began by giving the premise of his decision. First, he said that masks do work in stemming the spread of the virus and that there is massive loss involved in mandating them. He said it is not yet endemic, “but the horse is out of the barn.” He said the response to Covid must change. As with other members, he would have preferred a date of March 7, but he generally agrees with the plan. Member Erin Gaffen thanked the superintendent for his careful approach. She said that this looming decision had consumed her for two weeks. She said that she is not a doctor or scientist, but she is a mother with children in the system. She is aware that her decision directly affects her family. She said we need to have a culture of respect for whatever parents decide for their children as the policy changes, but she supports the proposal.
Member Carla Nazzaro commented that the threat of Covid was far more significant for seniors than for students and that it is time for us to allow personal choice. The mask policy indicates that “school is a scary place.” She agrees that going forward; we need to show “grace and respect.” She also supports the proposal.
Chair Tom Wise was the last committee member to speak, echoing thanks to all involved. He admitted that “there is no one right answer. There are trade-offs.” He feels that the pros are now smaller than the cons, with vaccinations up and Covid numbers down.
Following the committee members, 11 citizens who had asked to make comments were each given two minutes. In all cases, and to varying degrees, they favored ending the mask mandate. Some requested that it be rescinded immediately rather than waiting.
The superintendent explained that DESE says that schools cannot do so before Feb. 28, except those that meet a certain threshold which Reading does not. However, he also pointed out that as a practical matter, it was only a delay of one day. After Friday the schools are closed until the 28th.
Following public discussion Brandt, who had favored a March 7 date, said he would vote for the proposal as written because he wanted the board to act in unity.
Chair Wise then called for the vote, which was recorded as 6-0.