WESTBOROUGH – A new, more flexible masking policy may take effect at Westborough High School and Gibbons Middle School early next year after a recommendation from Superintendent Amber Bock.
Bock spoke at the Westborough School Committee’s Nov. 17 meeting, asking members to plan to vote on the policy at their next meeting, currently scheduled for Dec. 1.
School officials emphasized, Nov. 17, that no decision had been made on potential changes to the masking policies at Westborough High School and Gibbons. Bock’s comments were simply a recommendation. That decision, they said, will not be made until the School Committee discusses and votes on the matter.
“[By doing this,] we acknowledge that we will move forward and we will begin at that date, short of the state taking away that right from us,” Bock said of her proposal.
State mandate lingers
The state enacted a blanket mask mandate for schools back in August and has since extended its end date until at least Jan. 15.
Schools with vaccination rates greater than 80 percent, though, have the option to apply for waivers for local control over masking policies.
Westborough has done just that and obtained waivers for Westborough High School and Gibbons Middle School.
“The door was open,” Bock said of the waiver process. “We walked through it. We received an acknowledgement that we could indeed move to flexible masking at Gibbons and the high school, and our clientele across the district faculty and family are now waiting to see what our next steps will be.”
Other districts are in similar positions.
Though Hopkinton has moved forward with a flexible masking policy at its high school, officials in the Public Schools of Northborough and Southborough have been weighing how to proceed following state approval of a masking waiver for Algonquin Regional High School.
Speaking at a Regional School Committee meeting, also on Nov. 17, District Wellness Coordinator Mary Ellen Duggan recommended that Algonquin avoid changing its mask policy before the state’s scheduled end of the mandate on Jan. 15.
Opinions on masking differ
Back in Westborough, Bock noted different opinions when it comes to masking.
“There are people that want to unmask now,” she said before elaborating on her recommendation. “They will be compromising by masking for several more weeks. There are people that feel like they’re not ready to unmask right now, and it gives them several more weeks to prepare.”
Bock acknowledged the advice of the district’s head of nursing, who she said had recommended avoiding considering a flexible masking protocol until after the holidays.
She also noted comments by members of the Board of Health, who expressed concern about relaxing mask policies at a meeting earlier this month.
“Although they did not take a formal vote on that, I would crystallize that as the general overview of their feedback to us,” she said.
Superintendent outlines proposed policy
As she spoke, Bock detailed specifics of a possible new flexible masking policy.
Under that plan, vaccinated students would be able to remove their masks in certain situations.
However, unvaccinated students would need to remain masked. All students would need to put their masks back on from time to time due to a variety of reasons.
Those could include situations where entire classrooms could require masking due to the medical needs of students and/or faculty.
Entire schools, likewise, could revert to universal masking as needed.
School Committee weighs in
School Committee members weighed in on the recommendation, with some expressing lingering frustration about the state’s decision to enact its mandate earlier this year.
Likewise, some members also noted their evolving perspectives on masking and this process.
“My thinking around that has shifted as I continue to listen to a range of stakeholders and also to the guidance of medical professionals and what they recommend for the health and safety of all of our community members,” School Committee Chair Kristen Vincent said.
Vincent said at a meeting on Nov. 2 that she did not think it was necessary to mask after Thanksgiving.
“We need to try this for a few weeks, collect the data, see where we’re at,” she said at the time. “There’s no good time to try this … I think it just has to happen.”
“Now I’m actually glad that we’re moving slowly to reach this decision,” she then said at this latest meeting.
Raghu Nandan supported keeping the masking policy unchanged through the upcoming holidays.
“There’s still kids who are not vaccinated and faculty who are not vaccinated,” he said. “So, why put anyone, even one person at risk when we can avoid that?”
Lisa Edinberg expressed similar perspectives, also cautioning against making decisions too far in advance of a scheduled implementation of decisions.
“Things change so quickly,” she said. “To appoint a date in the future feels impractical. Things move too fast.”
Community members offer thoughts
As School Committee members offered their thoughts, two community members also voiced their opinions, Nov. 17.
“I’m one of those people that says ‘Nothing bad has happened yet? Great, let’s keep it that way,’” Dianne McPherson said, although she also noted in her comments to the School Committee, “my trust goes to you.”
“If we could just wait a month or two…then they could all get to be together again without masks and be safe,” Lauren McDonald said.
Local case data
Westborough as a whole recorded 34 new COVID-19 cases between Nov. 5 and Nov. 18, according to the Board of Health.
The schools saw 19 cases among students and staff during that span, according to district data, including three student cases and one staff case at Westborough High School.
There were no cases reported at Gibbons.
“The majority of new cases are occurring in people who are eligible for the vaccine but have not been vaccinated,” Board of Health Chair Alan Ehrlich wrote in a statement attached to the board’s Nov. 19 case report. “Given the high level of vaccination in Westborough, this means that the risks of getting infected are dramatically higher for those who are unvaccinated.”