Regional School Committee lifts mask requirement for ARHS

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Regional School Committee lifts mask requirement for ARHS
Students leave Algonquin Regional High School on Feb. 10. The school’s mask mandate will be lifted later this month following a vote by the School Committee. (Photo/Dakota Antelman)

NORTHBOROUGH – Algonquin Regional High School will no longer require masks starting Feb. 28.

This comes following the recommendation of both Superintendent Greg Martineau and the district’s medical advisory team during the Feb. 16 Regional School Committee meeting. 

This decision also comes after the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education decided to not continue its mask mandate after Feb. 28, prompting districts like the Public Schools of Northborough and Southborough to make these decisions about masking.

Student representative Lindsey Stone said she’s had a couple of athletic competitions and practices in other towns where players could remove their masks.

“Just seeing everyone’s smiles and seeing a team that I’m probably with all the time together again after two years really brought so much joy that I haven’t had in so long,” Stone said. “I think that really changed my perspective of how much masks really affected us when we really didn’t realize [it].”

Director of Wellness Mary Ellen Duggan said that cases have declined and, more recently, remained steady since the height of the recent COVID-19 case surge driven by the Omicron variant of the coronavirus. 

There were five cases at Algonquin between Feb. 10 and 16. 

There were four cases in the previous week. 

Policy

The School Committee unanimously accepted new language in its face coverings policy to allow for unmasking.

Throughout the pandemic, the district and committee have weighed different metrics that could lead to the off ramp of masks before eventually landing on using attendance as that metric. 

The policy includes language that calls on Martineau to reconvene the Medical Advisory Team to review data if the average student daily attendance falls below 92% over one week or other “unforeseen circumstances.” The team would consider whether to reinstate a face covering requirement until the School Committee reconvenes.

The team would make a recommendation to the School Committee, which would then vote. 

Duggan said that, as part of that process, the team would look at the causes of those absences. Outside of COVID-19, she noted, days immediately before a vacation could see increased absenteeism. Events like senior skip day could also prompt data anomalies.

Attendance fell to 88% as COVID-19 kept many students home after winter break. That was below the district’s 92% threshold that can coincide with an uptick in cases. 

“When that amount of students are missing from school, it’s impacting every single class — not just the kids who are missing,” Duggan said.

Community weighs in

School Committee member Daniel Kolenda offered his thoughts on current mask policy.

“There’s always going to be something where we could say, ‘Let’s keep those masks on for just one more week,” he said. “How about one more month?”

He noted “impassioned” parents who spoke during this School Committee meeting. They “know what’s best for their students,” he said.

Southborough parent Jody Chase has two kids in the district — a freshman and third grader. 

She said her third grader is in tears every morning, not wanting to go to school.

“It’s heartwrenching to make her cover her adorable smile, and I can no longer look my kids in the eye and say, ‘This is O.K.,’” Chase said.

She said people should begin “thinking for themselves” and “stop accepting mandates and policies as gospel and law.” 

“Raise your awareness of the power and the destruction that fear, greed and ego have brought to this community, our homes and our schools,” Chase said

Some spoke in favor of keeping masks. Student Cassie Melo said some family members of school community members may be at high risk. 

“In terms of safety at school, I’d much rather wear masks than become sick,” Melo said. “Especially when so many people I know who’ve gotten sick and had next to no symptoms still missed a good amount of their education. Overall, I think health is important, and I’d rather be safe than sorry in any scenario.” 

Principal addresses change

ARHS principal Sean Bevan addressed the community on Thursday morning with an email update on masking.

“I recognize that this is a significant change and will be welcome by many students and staff,” he wrote. “I also understand that this change may be a source of stress for some that are not yet ready to remove their masks at school and may be nervous about being around others who are not wearing a mask.”

He invited those anxious about the transition to complete a form to get in contact with school guidance staff, who he said can “help students navigate the return to classes on February 28.”

That form was due to close on Friday morning, Bevan wrote.

He additionally called on parents to talk with their child about “the importance of respecting the choices of their peers, to wear a mask or not.”

“As a school, a state, and a country, we have all been through an exceedingly difficult last 22 months, and this change represents a major step in our journey toward returning our school environment to a sense of normalcy,” Bevan concluded. “I am deeply grateful for your patience and understanding as we continue to navigate this challenge together.”

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