Middle, high schools could lift order on Oct. 1 if 80% vaccination rate met
By Carol Britton Meyer
The Hull School Committee this week approved a face coverings policy that is in line with state Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley’s issuance on Aug. 24 of a statewide universal mask mandate, intended to start the new school year on the safe side.
The mandate, which became effective immediately, requires all K-12 public school students (ages 5 and older), educators, staff members, and visitors to wear masks.
The requirement will remain in effect until at least Oct. 1 to provide time to increase the vaccination rate in the schools, Riley said. On Tuesday, the Massachusetts Board of Education granted him the authority to issue such a requirement, at his request.
During its regularly scheduled meeting that evening, the School Committee also approved its own mask policy for the Hull Public Schools.
School Superintendent Judith Kuehn told The Hull Times after the meeting that it was already the intention of the School Committee, with the support of administrative staff, “to transition into the new school year with such a policy in place.”
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.
A statement issued by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education on Wednesday outlined further details of the policy. While not mandatory, it is “strongly recommended” that students younger than age 5 also wear face masks in school. Masks are not required outdoors.
“The HPS face coverings policy [in conjunction with Riley’s mandate] is to help ensure that we can keep our schools open for in-person learning for five full days a week,” Kuehn said, noting that the remote option is no longer allowed under DESE rules.
When deemed appropriate, the School Committee and other school officials will look at the data and – in consultation with the Hull Board of Health, school nurses, the Hull Public Schools leadership team, and the Hull Teachers’ Association – “decide when we could possibly ease the masking requirements for vaccinated students and staff,” Kuehn said.
The HPS mask policy will remain in place until rescinded by the School Committee, and ongoing reviews of the policy will occur during the upcoming school year.
During the meeting, Kuehn also discussed other coronavirus-related issues, including mitigating strategies, safety protocols, safety and cleaning practices, and PCR COVID-19 testing through South Shore Hospital.
The decision to allow Riley to implement the statewide mandate to provide time for more members of school communities to get vaccinated comes on the heels of the federal Food and Drug Administration granting Pfizer and BioNTech full approval of their COVID-19 vaccine in the United States earlier this week.
Until a week ago, decisions related to health and safety measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in schools had been left to individual communities based on local data.
As students and staff prepare to return to school full time and in person, Riley said, “our priority is on a smooth reopening. With cases rising, this mask mandate will provide one more measure to support the health and safety of our students and staff this fall.”
After Oct. 1, the commissioner’s policy permits middle and high schools to lift the mask mandate for vaccinated students and staff members only if the school meets a certain vaccination rate; at least 80 percent of students and staff in a school building must be vaccinated. Unvaccinated students and staff would still be required to wear face masks.
On Oct. 1, Hull school officials will examine the data to determine whether the schools meet that threshold and also “to see what the variant is doing at that time,” according to Kuehn. “If we can’t demonstrate the 80 percent [including providing the required proof to the state DESE], the universal mask policy will remain in effect. In the meantime, we will continue to be careful, collaborate, and look at the data.”
Kuehn said the main focus will be on encouraging Hull High School students to get vaccinated so as to reach the 80 percent threshold. About 55 percent of that age group is already vaccinated.
Riley will revisit the statewide mandate for possible revision as warranted by public health data.
The goal remains “to get as many people as possible vaccinated,” Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said recently. “We hope that by instituting vaccine benchmarks among school populations, we will create a real incentive for students and staff to get vaccinated so they can remove their masks.”