A flexible mask policy for the Hull Public Schools will go into effect Monday, Feb. 28, when students and staff return from their winter break.
“Whether to wear a mask or not is (now) a personal decision,” Superintendent of Schools Judith Kuehn said, noting that those with medical conditions, who are unvaccinated, or who feel safer wearing a face covering may decide to do so.
During a well-attended in-person School Committee meeting this week, the vote was 4-0-1 in favor of moving away from the current mask mandate, in conjunction with Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley’s recent announcement that the statewide public school mask requirement will be lifted effective the last day of February. The decision is now a matter of local choice.
The lifting of the mandate was at the suggestion of Kuehn in consultation with school nurses, the leadership team, and the board of health. Four members of the School Committee voted in favor, with member Kyle Conley abstaining.
Masks are still required on school buses, according to a federal mandate, and in school nurses’ offices.
Comments from parents at the meeting ranged from many in favor of lifting the HPS mask mandate to concerns about ending the requirement right after February vacation. The overall theme was respecting each family’s choice as to whether their children will wear face coverings and taking steps to ensure that students and staff who decide to wear face masks are not subjected to bullying.
In response to that concern, Committee Chair David Twombly said all school administrators “need to be tuned into this issue. We don’t want anyone to have a problem wearing a mask. This could be a pressure cooker for the first couple of weeks.”
Jacobs Elementary School Principal Christine Cappadona assured the School Committee that there will be assemblies to help students understand that wearing a mask is a personal choice, noting that all other health and safety protocols will remain in place.
With regard to the timing of the lifting of the mask mandate, Kuehn noted that at least with the HPS, there haven’t been any spikes in the COVID19 case numbers after school breaks other than with Omicron.
Explaining that the number of COVID19 cases community- and schoolwide is dropping, Kuehn said that if cases should spike in the future, “we could always pivot and go back to wearing masks again.”
School Committee member Ernest Minelli enthusiastically supported the recommendation to drop the mask mandate. “This honors the [individual choices] of students and staff [in making their own decision],” he said. “We’ve had more than 300 instructional days with students and staff masked.”
He also learned that after consulting with the HPS school nurses, that despite the number of COVID cases in the community throughout the pandemic, “there have been no hospitalizations involving HPS students or staff.”
Member Stephanie Peters thanked the school nurses “for getting us through this pandemic. You pivoted more than any of us. We’ve always followed the science and the superintendent’s recommendations,” she said. “We’ve gone with what the data has told us, so I’m comfortable with this recommendation.”
A parent expressed concern about students who are living with their grandparents, believing that lifting the mask mandate could put them at risk. That being the case, Kuehn suggested that any student who is in that position could wear a face mask, to provide a level of protection.
Conley asked Kuehn what the triggers would be that could lead to reinstatement of a mask mandate. In response, Kuehn said she couldn’t give “a hard number. People will have to trust our good track record, working with nurses [and local health officials] to make the [best] decision” and to continue to put the safety of students and staff first.
“I think it’s a little bit naive to think we could rally the support of the community to require [students and staff] to put masks back on [if deemed necessary to do so],” Conley said.
Despite some concerns about lifting the face mask mandate, Kuehn feels strongly that “it’s time to take this off ramp. There has not been much spread of COVID in the schools, and this is another stride toward normalcy. It’s been two years.”
The at-home antigen COVID testing program remains in effect for those wishing to participate. “For anyone who is concerned, their children can take the test even the Sunday before returning from vacation,” Kuehn said. Symptomatic testing by school nurses will continue if a student or staff member reports that he or she is experiencing symptoms.
Twombly thanked the parents who attended the meeting for their “respectful” comments, unlike some of the negative remarks posted on social media.
Minelli is hopeful that with the entire school community working together, there will be “plenty of opportunities to articulate this shared vision [of respecting everyone, regardless of whether they wear a face mask or not]. It’s all about choice and respecting people’s [individual] values.”
At the end of the discussion, Peters encouraged the large number of parents attending the meeting to continue to be involved with school issues, especially the upcoming conversations about the best educational use of school facilities.
Peters emphasized that the move to a flexible mask policy was not a random decision.
“We’re not making this change because people are sick of wearing masks, but because everything is trending in the right direction. Safety is our number one priority, and if we have to go back to wearing masks [at some point], I hope everyone will be kind,” she said. “We’re all trying to do what’s best for everyone in the community. I’m for this change trepidly, but [the situation] could shift.”