The public school mask mandate issued by state Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley in August has been extended until Nov. 1, or later, at Riley’s discretion. The order had required all K-12 public school students ages 5 and older, educators, staff members, and visitors to wear face masks until at least Oct. 1 to provide time to increase the vaccination rate in those buildings.
School Superintendent Judith Kuehn announced the extension at Monday’s School Committee meeting. There are certain exceptions for those who have a medical, behavioral, or other challenge that makes it unsafe for them to wear a face mask or covering.
The commissioner’s initial policy called for allowing middle and high schools to potentially lift the mask mandate for vaccinated students and staff after Oct. 1 but only if they reached a certain vaccination threshold – that at least 80 percent of students and staff, combined, in a school building are vaccinated, including the South Shore Collaborative.
“The school nurses are collecting vaccination data, and we encourage students and staff to get vaccinated,” Kuehn said. “We’ll be trying to arrange clinics with Manet [Community Health Center] for students who are interested to have access to vaccinations.”
The vaccination rate as of Sept. 22 at Hull High School was 65.6 percent and 58.8 percent at Memorial Middle School, according to Kuehn.
“If the vaccination rate at any of our schools reaches that threshold by Nov. 1 [or whatever date Riley decides on], then the School Committee and I, in consultation with the school nurses and the Board of Health, would consider whether the mask mandate [could be changed] for that building,” Kuehn explained.
Unvaccinated students and staff would still be required to wear face masks. “If you don’t want to be masked, get vaxed,” School Committee Chair David Twombly advised. “We need some sort of incentive to reach the 80 percent, and this is it.”
How to enforce such a mandate is an issue, Kuehn acknowledged. “And if someone is wearing a mask [for health reasons and not because they are unvaccinated], will they feel embarrassed?” she wondered.
Kuehn reported that Public Health Nurse Joyce Sullivan has expressed concerns about the potential Nov. 1 date because there has been a recent uptick in COVID-19 cases in Hull. They include nine positive coronavirus cases at the middle school and one at the high school. All safety protocols are being followed, and COVID-19 testing is available through the Hull Public Schools.
In response to a question from the audience, Kuehn indicated that HPS cannot mandate that students, teachers, or staff get vaccinations, that such a requirement would have to come from the state.
Committee member Ernest Minelli asked if Riley is taking into consideration those who have natural immunity from COVID-19 following prior infections. “Would that count toward the 80 percent?” he asked. Kuehn said she believes that the 80 percent refers to those who have actually been vaccinated.
Minelli pointed to Gov. Charlie Baker’s earlier lifting of the COVID-19 state of emergency and his “leaning toward local autonomy” at that time in making such decisions. “I would love to see a time when we as a state return to local control,” he said. “… Then we could have a discussion with school administrators, nurses, and public health officials about what’s best for our community. This is a community-based issue, and each one’s needs are distinct.”
Kuehn also reported that school officials, working with the school nurses and the Board of Health, are considering whether to implement the Massachusetts Department of Education “test and stay” model in the HPS. “We want to see how this would work. We want to determine the safest thing to do for our students.”
“Test and stay” is geared toward keeping students who are close contacts of COVID-positive individuals in school until they potentially test positive through a daily testing program to allow as much in-person learning as possible, among other components. Parental consent is required for a student to participate. It is expected that more information will be available at a later date.
* In other business at the meeting, Assistant School Superintendent David DeGennaro reported that planned improvements to the Memorial Middle School will soon be underway. Scaffolding was expected to be erected this week, weather permitting, with a bricks and mortar delivery as well. “The new windows are on order, but [their arrival] has been delayed,” he said.
The current construction schedule indicates that the project could be completed by early next year.