By Stuart Foster, Contributing Writer
WESTBOROUGH – Westborough Public Schools Superintendent Amber Bock discussed the possible implementation of a flexible masking policy for Westborough High School (WHS) and Gibbons Middle School with the Board of Health on Oct. 27.
Board of Health members expressed a variety of perspectives during that discussion.
“We know masks protect both parties,” said Melissa Mahr. “With winter coming and more gatherings going inside [in the] holiday season, we’re likely going to see increased transmission.”
Mahr recommended waiting to change the policy until elementary school children ages five through 11 can be vaccinated. She also recommended waiting until Westborough’s case incidence rate drops below 10 and waiting until there are more vaccinated students and teachers.
Bock presented data at the meeting showing that WHS had an 85 percent COVID-19 vaccination rate, while Gibbons had an 82 percent rate. Both schools each had three unvaccinated faculty members, she said.
Board of Health Chair Nathan Walsh said that, while an 85 percent vaccination rate in WHS is good, it is not good enough to recommend a transition to a flexible masking policy.
Walsh said that indoor spaces where people are in close proximity to each other for more than 15 minutes, like schools, present a particular risk for COVID-19 transmission.
“That’s kind of the situation where I would view that as risky, and they should be wearing masks,” Walsh said.
Alan Ehrlich offered his comments, saying that he thought the School Committee and Superintendent are in a good position to determine whether a transition to flexible masking is appropriate.
Ehrlich described the risk of COVID-19 transmission as one factor in the decision of whether or not to implement flexible masking policies. He said that other considerations, like student anxiety over wearing masks, are relevant.
“As long as we’re carefully monitoring the situation, I don’t think it’s reckless to go in that direction,” Ehrlich said.
The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) provides waivers to let schools that meet certain vaccination benchmarks implement flexible masking. Bock said WHS and Gibbons have received such waivers.
At a School Committee meeting on Oct. 20, though, Bock noted that the Westborough Public Schools would not move forward with such a policy until moving forward with a “thoughtful process.”
One of the steps she outlined at the School Committee meeting was this meeting with the Board of Health to seek recommendations for metrics regarding the implementation of flexible masking.
“Well-implemented flexible masking is probably the next step forward for us in this state of living, and at some point, we will face it, and I think the process is going to have to take those steps,” Bock said.
Bock also listed some expectations for policies in place if the schools were to move toward flexible masking. Those included expectations that all students and faculty should have a mask available at all times and that any unvaccinated individuals would remain masked indoors.
The policy would also contain special circumstances for masking, like some classrooms having approved masking guidelines for documented medical circumstances.