School Committee talks unmasking criteria at Algonquin

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Medical Advisory Team member Andrea Ciaranello talks during the Regional School Committee Dec. 15. (Photo/Laura Hayes)

NORTHBOROUGH/SOUTHBOROUGH – The Public Schools of Northborough and Southborough’s Medical Advisory Team outlined recommended criteria to consider flexible masking at Algonquin Regional High School.

One of those criteria is a case count of less than one percent of the student body. 

The district’s team did not recommend unmasking at that moment during the Dec. 15 Regional School Committee meeting.

The team recommended that an adaptive mask policy should be developed before the current policy is rescinded. It further recommended that the district evaluate data at its next meeting, on Jan. 19. 

Some School Committee members expressed interest in taking a hard vote at that time.

District staff lay out policy guidelines

Director of Wellness Mary Ellen Duggan said any adaptive mask policy should include two criteria. One would be a vaccination rate greater than 80 percent while the second would be a case count of less than one percent of students per week. That would translate to 12 cases, at Algonquin. 

If the case rate becomes greater than one percent, the team would convene and determine if a universal masking policy should be reinstated. According to Duggan, if such a policy were to be reinstated, it would be for a two-week period, during which the team would review data to see if masks could be removed once again.

School Committee member Paul Butka said the adaptive masking policy would need to be in place instantly in case of a surge.

“It seems a little scary to me that we would hit numbers like we did with the masking policy in place, even though a little while ago we were so low,” Butka said. 

Superintendent Greg Martineau said he felt “very confident” with following the Medical Advisory Team’s recommendation. 

“I think with the current context of Omicron [and] not knowing, watching what happens over the next couple of weeks and then looking at the data when we return and then having a vote at the next School Committee meeting is [a] cautious and methodical approach, one that I support,” Martineau said.

Dec. 15 discussion follows previous conversation

Algonquin received a waiver from the state’s school mask mandate earlier this year, joining a short list of schools with vaccination rates over 80 percent to have acquired such a waiver. 

Locally, Hopkinton and Westborough have also received and implemented waivers for flexible masking at some schools, though both districts have since transitioned back to universal masking.

The Northborough-Southborough Regional School Committee discussed an off ramp to unmasking with district staff back in November. At that time, one of the criteria for adaptive masking was low to moderate community transmission rates as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That criteria was a sticking point for some members, who expressed concern that  Northborough and Southborough may never hit those thresholds.

The Medical Advisory Team subsequently met and looked at the numbers, variants and the various implications associated with adaptive masking.

The district’s most recent data indicated that, as of Dec. 15, 86.35 percent of students at Algonquin were fully vaccinated.

“But we need to look bigger than the high school,” Duggan said. “We need to look at what are our vaccination rates in our younger grades.”

Algonquin notes case surge

There were 75 positive COVID-19 cases at Algonquin from the beginning of the school year through Dec. 15. The district reported 20 cases on Dec. 21 and Dec. 22 alone, however, prompting some alarm and causing school officials to ban spectators at all school athletic contests. 

This decision came at the advice of the Medical Advisory Team, Principal Sean Bevan wrote in a message to families. 

Likewise, it came after officials noted that multiple students who tested positive for COVID-19 had attended school athletic events in recent days. 

Family members of student athletes can still attend games. But school staff will be on hand to turn away other students who may try to attend games, including ones held at other schools or off-site locations, such as NorthStar Ice Sports in Westborough.

Speaking back on Dec. 15, School Committee member Daniel Kolenda questioned the proposed benchmarks for adaptive masking.

“At this point, do we make a motion to permanently keep masks on? When do you think we’ll ever get less than 12 [cases]?” Kolenda asked. “Should we just not have the discussion every month and just let the students know that it’s going to be a permanent mask wearing?”

“Not at all,” Duggan replied. “We have had less than 12 since the first week of October.” 

Duggan explained that staff had asked nurses what could be handled in terms of contact tracing in a week. The nurses said they could handle about 10 cases.

“With support, we thought we could do 12,” Duggan said. 

Student representative Lindsey Stone said students have adapted to masks and know the rules.

“The minute we say we can take them off, I have a feeling that that adapting and that whole thing [of], it’s just a rule and we have to do it, is going to go away,” she said. “That silver lining is going to fall aside.”

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