Westborough High School, Gibbons Middle School to transition to flexible masking

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Westborough town iconWESTBOROUGH – The Westborough Public Schools will implement flexible masking for vaccinated students and faculty at Gibbons Middle School and Westborough High School (WHS) on Dec. 6 following a 5-0 vote by the School Committee on Dec. 1. 

Students will transition back to mandatory masking for one week following this school year’s winter break, under the plan. 

This came after Superintendent Amber Bock had initially recommended Jan. 10 as a date to transition to flexible masking.

“If you vote, tonight, a protocol that you want implemented on Monday, the Westborough Public Schools faculty will be ready and we will do good work,” Bock said prior to the vote. 

Bock recommends Jan. 10 implementation date

Schools with vaccination rates of over 80 percent can apply for a waiver from the state to allow for local control over masking policies.

Gibbons and WHS are two of the schools that have received such waivers.

Bock delivered her Jan. 10 recommendation at a previous School Committee meeting on Nov. 17 and spoke again on the matter on Dec. 1.

Beyond Gibbons and WHS, this plan, Bock said, would further provide a blueprint to “offboard” other schools in the district as they reach the 80 percent vaccination threshold.

There have been several conversations since Westborough received its waivers as school officials have worked to create possible plans to transition to flexible masking. 

Some School Committee members have expressed frustrations with the timetable though, noting at recent meetings that they were surprised by Bock’s proposal of Jan. 10 as a day to transition to flexible masking.

“I was and remain disappointed that, at our last meeting, a date of Jan. 10 was suddenly sprung upon the School Committee,” said School Committee member Lisa Edinberg following Bock’s statements on Dec. 1. “I believed in October that the process for collecting vaccination data was underway. It was not until Nov. 14. And [I believed] that the process for the HR director to analyze staff medical exemptions for mask mandated classrooms would be in progress by Nov. 2. Yet, Nov. 17, when voting could have occurred, Jan. 10 flew into the mix of discussion rather than Dec. 6. I found that frustrating and deeply shocking.”

Prior to Edinberg’s comments, Bock said she recognized that the Jan. 10 date “moved the needle past vacation.” 

She said the recommendation focused on Jan. 10 because it took into account several “pieces,” including some individuals’ anxieties about COVID-19 as well as the time needed to prepare for new policy implementation. It also recognized that “we have to move forward” while acknowledging that the Board of Health and its director “do not support unmasking right now,” Bock said.

“Each of these are hard choices,” she later added. “And any recommendation, I have always said, is about remaining in a relationship with everyone who is a participant in this process.”

“I don’t think any of them are perfect decisions,” Bock said. “It doesn’t make me happy to see kids masked. It doesn’t make me content to see faculty masked. I’m not happy being masked. I would welcome flexible masking.”

Bock noted that she made these decisions based, in part, on feedback from district faculty, who expressed concerns about a transition to flexible masking.

“I believe that, in selecting that date, I selected something that I felt I could stand behind, that acknowledged all of those groups,” she said. “But it wasn’t, and I said at the time, based on data. If you want to make that decision based on data alone, outside of the relationship work that we’ve committed to as well, then you can vote differently.

School Committee approves Dec. 6 implementation date

Speaking on Dec. 1, Edinberg moved to begin flexible masking on Dec. 6, citing ongoing mental health issues for young people, current COVID-19 data, and an opportunity for both “more effective learning” and a return to normalcy for older students, among other things. She emphasized that, in terms of preventing COVID-19, “the greatest safety mitigation layer is vaccinations.”

She noted that a Dec. 6 start date for a flexible masking policy would still allow 11 days to have passed since Thanksgiving and any coronavirus exposure that took place during Thanksgiving celebrations.

Edinberg also discussed her overall position regarding flexible masking. 

She said she is in favor of flexible masking and said her opinion “got lost in translation” following that Nov. 17 meeting.

She noted Community Advocate reporting, saying she felt some of her comments at that meeting were taken out of context. 

She also explained her own decision to wear a mask, emphasizing that it does not reflect an opposition to flexible masking.

“I think the bizarre disconnect is that, if I am for flexible masking, that I would not wear a mask,” Edinberg said. “And, yet, the very nature of flexible masking is a choice between wearing one or not.” 

“I am in favor of flexible masking,” she said. “My perspective has been that, if the students must wear a mask, then I will wear one too.”

Under her amendment to the flexible masking policy, vaccinated Gibbons and WHS students will have the option to remove masks in certain situations beginning on Dec. 6. 

Mandatory masking will remain in place for unvaccinated students and for vaccinated students in other situations where required by student or staff medical needs. 

A number of other circumstances may also have students masked, at least for the time being, as district officials continue to monitor COVID-19 cases and data trends.

Other School Committee members weighed in after Edinberg, discussing both the mental health benefits of flexible masking and the rollout of flexible masking in nearby Hopkinton. 

Some further argued that flexible masking is essentially already in effect because students participate in activities outside of school without masks or social distancing measures. 

Stephen Doret acknowledged the threat of the emerging Omicron variant of COVID-19 and noted that the incubation periods of other forms of COVID-19 have been as long as 14 days, which is longer than the planned period of mandatory masking after winter vacation. 

He encouraged families to vaccinate their children and ultimately said he supported Edinberg’s motion, provided that students indeed mask following winter vacation. 

“I think logic says we probably won’t do any damage in the first fifteen days,” he said, referencing the number of school days between Dec. 6 and winter break. “But we could if we don’t re-mask later.”

Kristen Vincent said she had received feedback from community members. “Most if not all” of the communications from middle school and high school parents, she said, supported flexible masking, while parents of younger students were often asking to wait to implement the state’s flexible masking waiver.  

“I need to listen to the students and the parents of the middle school and high school students,” Vincent said. “They’ve met the benchmarks. They are now actually getting boosters at this point. We set benchmarks for them and kept moving them. We said ‘Wait for the teachers to get vaccinated. Wait for your vaccination. Wait for this and that.’ The state allowed us to apply for a waiver. We applied for it what, to me, feels like a very long time ago.”

She said she “would like to see this implemented” but suggested a modification to Edinberg’s motion, proposing a two-week pilot period of flexible masking from Dec. 6 to Dec. 17, with students transitioning back to mandatory masking for school days between Dec. 20 and Jan. 7. 

The committee opted not to vote on that option, however, and instead voted on Edinberg’s initial motion. 

Masks required in town buildings

This School Committee vote did come as the town of Westborough recently enacted a new mask requirement for municipal buildings. 

That requirement, Town Administrator Kristi Williams told the Community Advocate on Dec. 1, will remain in effect until Jan. 10 as a precaution during the holiday season.

Speaking at the School Committee’s meeting, Edinberg, who said she spoke with Williams, emphasized differences between Westborough schools and municipal facilities like the Town Hall and the Forbes Municipal Building.

“Town staff work directly with the public in their offices, in the field and in homes and businesses,” she continued. “The schools are a much more closed environment with consistent contacts. The data for Gibbons and the High School illustrate this well.”