UPDATE: Westborough teachers, community members protest new flexible masking policy at WHS, Gibbons

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By Laura Hayes and Dakota Antelman

UPDATE: Westborough teachers, community members protest new flexible masking policy at WHS, Gibbons
Community members held signs outside of Westborough High School responding to the recent decision to implement a flexible masking policy at Gibbons Middle School and Westborough High School. (Photo/Laura Hayes)

WESTBOROUGH – Westborough High School (WHS) staff participated in a brief “walk out” this afternoon in response to the Westborough School Committee’s decision to implement flexible masking at the High School and at Gibbons Middle School starting today. 

Staff reentered the school after gathering near an outdoor classroom.

Nearby, on the sidewalk along West Main Street, parents and other community members gathered, holding signs and voicing their support. 

“We’re pretty shocked by the School Committee’s decision to pretty rashly start with flex masking today,” parent and organizer Danielle Jordan told the Community Advocate. “So, we wanted to try to prevent that from happening as much as we can.”

It’s not the time, Jordan said, citing rising cases and people traveling.

She was joined by her son, Sawyer, who attends Gibbons.

“I just think that we should support masking because the pandemic isn’t over, and I don’t want people to get hurt and a lot of people are going to be traveling during the holidays,” Sawyer said. “People could get sick and other people could get sick from that.”

Individuals stood in front of Gibbons earlier in the day, holding signs and voicing their support for teachers. 

School Committee vote

The School Committee voted on Dec. 1 to implement flexible masking for vaccinated students and staff at both Gibbons Middle School and WHS, effective this morning. 

Under the new flexible masking policy, students will transition back to mandatory masking for a week following winter break. 

The School Committee’s decision came after Superintendent Amber Bock had previously recommended Jan. 10 as a date to transition to flexible masking.

UPDATE: Westborough teachers, community members protest new flexible masking policy at WHS, Gibbons
WHS teachers wave after walking out of the school. (Photo/Laura Hayes)

She said she based that recommendation, in part, on conversations with a number of stakeholders, some of whom expressed concerns about 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. But it wasn’t, and I said at the time, based on data,” Bock told the School Committee prior to their vote on Dec. 1. “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.”

The School Committee voted 5-0 to move forward with flexible masking effective Dec. 6, with multiple members discussing concerns about mental health among students. Members also said flexible masking was already taking place outside of the school day as students participate in non-socially distanced, unmasked activities, among other things. 

Speaking on Dec. 1, School Committee Chair Kristen Vincent said she had received messages from a variety of constituents. The bulk of those messages from middle school and high school parents, she said, advocated for the adoption of flexible masking. Parents of younger students generally asked to at least delay the transition, she said.

“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.”

Schools with vaccination rates over 80 percent can apply for a waiver from the state to allow for local control over masking policies. WHS and Gibbons both received such waivers earlier this year. 

While Jordan said she was more supportive of Bock’s Jan. 10 option than today, she said she was “most in favor” of watching the case numbers and adopting flexible masking when all students could be fully vaccinated.

Shazia Ali, meanwhile, has children in elementary school.

“I just don’t want them getting sick, and my youngest is not vaccinated and the numbers are going crazy,” she said. “I know whatever happens at the high school and middle school is going to trickle down to siblings at different schools.”

WHS students react

About half a dozen students joined protest, Dec. 6.

“Listen to your students,” one said when asked what they want administrators and School Committee members to know.

“We’re very reasonable,” said junior Julio Varella. “We’re not kids anymore. We clearly see the issues here. We clearly see the benefits of masking. We should be listened to.”

Sophomore Nason Hubbard said most students at Westborough High School were wearing masks today, calling that a “nice surprise.”

“I didn’t even remember in the beginning that we were doing flexible masking already because I don’t think anyone in the first half the day was not wearing them,” junior Harshita Srivastava said.

Freshman Abigail Northrup said, however, that she was anxious in the classes where a lot of the students weren’t wearing masks.

“Luckily, most of my close friends are wearing masks at school. So, I was sitting with them and I felt comfortable with them,” Northrup said. “But, in the hallways and stairwells where it’s crammed to the classrooms that are smaller, it was very difficult.”