Northborough, Southborough approve unmasking for elementary, middle schools

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Northborough, Southborough approve unmasking for elementary, middle schools
Mia and Madison Nicosia wear masks while participating in the recent Sock-a-Thon effort at Melican Middle School. (Photo/Cindy Zomar)

NORTHBOROUGH/SOUTHBOROUGH – Come Feb. 28, students at Trottier and Melican middle schools will be able to remove their masks. 

However, students at the elementary schools in Northborough and Southborough will have to wait until March 14, following votes by both the Northborough and Southborough school committees.

“It’s been an interesting two years to be a School Committee member and have these decisions fall into our laps,” said Northborough Chair Lauren Bailey-Jones during a joint meeting Feb. 17

Bailey-Jones praised the community’s outreach and the help of both the district’s medical advisory team and medical professionals on the School Committee.

“I feel confident in the discussion that has taken place,” she said. “I think that we have reviewed the data. We have listened to a lot of different opinions, as well as anecdotal stories as well.”

This decision comes after the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education opted to end its mandate in schools on Feb. 28.

The Regional School Committee voted to no longer require masks at Algonquin Regional High School during their Feb. 16 meeting, effective Feb. 28.

The Northborough and Southborough School Committees convened in a joint meeting on Thursday. 

Before they voted, Superintendent Greg Martineau said that many families and students may continue to wear masks if the mandate was lifted. 

“I think it’s really important that we continue to promote the choice, making sure that an individual’s choice to mask or not mask is respected by all,” Martineau said.

Unmasking explained

Administrators have been discussing a number of metrics to inform decisions on unmasking. They ultimately landed on using attendance as a key marker. 

“Looking at average daily attendance as a metric, I think it does have merit and it does provide a good window to what is happening in our schools,” Martineau said. 

According to Martineau, the average daily attendance hovers between 95% and 97%. 

Under this new face covering policy, the Medical Advisory Team will reconvene to review data if average daily attendance falls below 92% over one week. Other “unforeseen circumstances” could also trigger a new meeting.

The team would consider whether to reinstate the face covering requirement until the School Committee reconvenes. The committee would then vote on a recommendation put forward by the team. 

“It does not trigger making masks mandatory,” Martineau said of the attendance threshold. “It triggers a conversation and a closer look at the data from our team of experts.”

March 14 for elementary students

Southborough School Committee member Kamali O’Meally expressed interest in allowing students in preschool through fifth grade to remove their masks earlier. 

“Having listened to the feedback from the emails and the commentary as well as looking at all the articles from the scientists, I think that the pre-k through fifth would be O.K.,” O’Meally said. 

Before her comments, Medical Advisory Team member Safdar Medina said one of the main reasons for delaying unmasking for those was to give them more time to prepare for the change. 

It would give time to teach the students why some may or may not wear masks, Medina said.

That date may also align with when a federal mandate requiring masks on buses may be lifted. It will also give the district’s team time to monitor data from the middle and high schools while further giving families time to either start or complete their child’s vaccination series.

Northborough School Committee member Joan Frank recalled how the reopening of schools was also phased in. 

“That proved to be very successful, and that was the first time we had done anything like that when we had it on a tiered approach and it worked so well,” Frank said. 

The recommended tiered approach was ultimately unanimously approved by both committees.

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