Westborough School Committee continues discussion on flexible masking

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By Stuart Foster, Contributing Writer

Westborough High School students working at their desks in a socially distanced classroom.
Westborough Schools currently require masks for students and faculty. However, both the high school and Gibbons Middle School have received waivers.
Photo/submitted

WESTBOROUGH – The Westborough School Committee discussed the districts proposed flexible masking policy for Westborough High School and Gibbons Middle School at a meeting on Nov. 2. 

Currently Westborough schools require masks for students and faculty. But the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education provides waivers to schools that have met the appropriate vaccination criteria. And the high school and Gibbons have both received waivers.

Superintendent Amber Bock emphasized at the Nov. 2 meeting that all students and faculty would be required to have a mask on their person at all times if new rules go into effect. The Westborough Public Schools would continually look at data in case classrooms or buildings need to temporarily return to mandatory masking.

“Flex masking means flex masking, it doesn’t mean you’re going to shed your mask and never put it on again the rest of the year,” Bock said. 

Bock said that the district will be looking at practices that will examine ways to establish safety standards for the different faculty and students in both schools. 

All unvaccinated students would be required to mask indoors under this policy.

Bock recommended not voting until Nov. 17 to give the district time to have conversations with various groups and finalize their protocol. If the vote were to pass at that point, the new policy would go into effect shortly before the Thanksgiving break.

All students would go back to masking for the week after the break, though. 

School Committee member Sara Dullea said she had been prepared to make a vote on Nov. 2, though she said she respected Bock’s reasoning for her recommendation. She also questioned the necessity of requiring students and faculty to wear masks after returning from the break, however.

“I don’t personally, in my opinion, see much difference between a regular weekend where people are gathering with their families and friends, or an extended weekend over Thanksgiving where people are traveling and gathering with family and friends,” Dullea said. “They’re probably traveling this weekend too.”

School Committee member Lisa Edinberg said that the School Committee should wait until after the Thanksgiving break to make a decision on implementing flexible masking, when more data and information to base the decision on will be available.

School Committee Chair Kristen Vincent, who, like Dullea, also said she would have been prepared to vote on the matter on Nov. 2, said that the district should not further delay a vote.

“We need to try this for a few weeks, collect the data, see where we’re at,” she said. “There’s no good time to try this…I think it just has to happen.”

“I think we should let the process guide us and I can promise you that we don’t want to be spending more time than we need to,” Bock said. “We need enough time to do it well.”

Vice Chair Steven Doret said that the proposed timing of a vote may be “too soon for some and too late for others.”

He also noted that individuals often do travel during holidays, sometimes visiting places with lower vaccination rates than Westborough. He supported temporarily bringing back masking for all after holidays like Thanksgiving even if the district has otherwise transitioned to a flex model at those times.

“I think it’s in the best interest of the community that we do so,” he said. “And after a week or two after that event, if there aren’t any other impacts of it, then we could go back to whatever the vote of the School Committee would be.”

Speaking Nov. 2, Bock discussed steps taken, such as meeting with and receiving recommendations from the Board of Health, and steps she plans to take, such as drafting a letter to faculty and staff about the range of discussion on flexible masking.

Bock did meet with the Board of Health on Oct. 27. Board members expressed a variety of perspectives, with some noting concerns about transitioning to a flexible masking policy at this point. Others, like Alan Ehrlich, noted the risk of COVID-19 transition but said the School Committee and the Superintendent are in a good position to determine whether to revise the masking policy.

“As long as we’re carefully monitoring the situation, I don’t think it’s reckless to go in that direction,” Ehrlich said.

“We are taking steps forward,” Bock said of the ongoing process around this decision. “We will not drag our feet, but we want to answer questions thoughtfully.”