By Laura Hayes, Senior Community Reporter
NORTHBOROUGH/SOUTHBOROUGH – A mask mandate will remain in place at Algonquin Regional High School (ARHS) despite an effort by Regional School Committee Vice Chair Daniel Kolenda to remove the mandate during an Oct. 20 meeting.
The state has extended its blanket mandate for schools through Nov. 1. Schools with 80 percent vaccination rates, though, have the option to apply to drop their mandates early.
“The marker’s been set,” said Kolenda. “The state set it…We not only met the marker, we exceeded the marker.”
He said he’s heard from parents and students who are eager to get rid of the masks.
“This is not normal,” Kolenda said. “Mask wearing is not normal.”
Superintendent Gregory Martineau said the district had submitted a form to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to have local control over when masks can be removed.
“I have not heard back from DESE around approval,” Martineau said on Oct. 20.
Kolenda moved to end the mask mandate once the district was approved to do so.
His motion failed 5-1. Members Kathleen Harragan Polutchko, Paul Butka, Joan Frank and Cathy Kea were not present.
“Dan, we heard your opinion,” said Chair Paul Desmond. “I completely disagree. I think we need to follow the science, and I agree with what the Medical Advisory team has said. I don’t think it’s worth the risk of more in-school contact tracing and loss of school learning time.”
Superintendent Gregory Martineau recommended the School Committee not vote on the policy and wait until its November meeting.
Martineau said recent conversations with the district’s Medical Advisory Team had surrounded masking and the offramp at ARHS.
“How do we go from having these COVID requirements to safely removing those in a way that wouldn’t cause loss of learning or additional resources to be added,” Martineau said.
87% of ARHS students are vaccinated
Two of the members of the Medical Advisory Team — Dr. Safdar Medina and Dr. Andrea Ciaranello — attended the meeting.
“I think for us, obviously, our support is to continue masking, and the primary reason to continue masking is to avoid disruption of learning,” Medina said.
ARHS is not just in the high school’s bubble, Medina said. High school students may have siblings who go to other schools and could be unvaccinated.
“You’re now looking at learning loss and emotional impact on students in other schools in the district,” Medina said.
According to District Wellness Coordinator Mary Ellen Duggan’s presentation, as of Oct. 20, 1,116 Algonquin students were fully vaccinated. That amounts to just under 88 percent of the student body.
Duggan said there have been 53 positive cases at ARHS. Thirty-six of those cases were breakthroughs. Eight cases have been attributed to possible in-school transmission.
Medina said he saw one high school that didn’t have a mask mandate at the start of the school year before the state mandated masks.
“Over the first few weeks, three days of unmasking led to a significant number of cases within the school,” Medina said.
Medina said that schools reported 21 in-school transmissions from Aug. 23 to Sept. 20.
Ciaranello said there are two components to an offramp — vaccination threshold and level of COVID-19 in the community. She said the 80 percent threshold was recommended before scientists knew a lot about the Delta variant.
With the Delta variant, Ciaranello said the vaccination threshold may be closer to 97 or 98 percent.
Martineau said that if masks were removed tomorrow, more staff would have to be added to support contact tracing.