By Laura Hayes and Ben Domaingue
NORTHBOROUGH/SOUTHBOROUGH – Students in Northborough and Southborough elementary schools are no longer required to wear masks effective on Thursday.
The Northborough and Southborough School Committees previously voted in a joint meeting last month to lift the mask mandate for elementary students on March 14.
Just over two weeks later, though, the committees met again tonight and opted to make this change. The decision also lifts the mask requirement while on school buses.
“I think the strongest point we had when we voted last time was to be in coincidence with the bus mandate at the federal level, which has already been lifted,” said Northborough School Committee member Erin Tagliaferri.
“Personally, I think we’ve talked about this enough,” she continued. “It’s only seven school days that we’re changing this by. So, I think it’s important to approve it and move on with our agenda.”
School officials discuss new guidelines, data
Superintendent Greg Martineau said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has changed its criteria for when masks can be removed in schools since the committees’ February meeting.
“As a result, according to CDC guidelines, masks would be removed in elementary schools, based on their criteria,” Martineau said.
Additionally, the district now has data regarding the number of COVID-19 cases following the February vacation last week.
There were eight total cases across all Northborough and Southborough schools, including the high school, between Feb. 24 and March 2.
“If we had this information on Feb. 17, we probably would not be having this discussion,” Director of Wellness Mary Ellen Duggan said. “But since we seem to get all of our information after the fact, after we’ve made decisions, we need to be a little flexible here.”
Medical advisory team met to review change
The district’s medical advisory team met yesterday to discuss changing the date to lift the mandate. Martineau said they supported this change.
He noted that families still have the option to have their students wear masks.
“Many of our educators will remain masked,” he said.
“For those families, who feel like their children are ready to unmask, it would give them the flexibility,” he continued, though.
Masks will still be required in health offices. Those returning from a shortened five-day COVID-19 quarantine or isolation will also need to wear masks for the first five days after they return to school.
Teachers will not be police masking in their classrooms, Martineau said.
Northborough Chair Lauren Bailey-Jones, who is a teacher in another district and whose students have been able to unmask this week, said her middle school students have been very respectful.
“One thing that I think really helped is I told my students sort of what my masking options were going to be and how I was going to operate in the classroom,” she said.
She had told them that she would be masked when working closely with another student. In one instance, an unmasked student came to work with Bailey-Jones at her desk and put his mask on.
“He was just really respectful and he put it on,” Bailey-Jones said. “There’s so much respect in our kids.…I was just very pleasantly surprised by the middle school students, and I do think it’s really going to be a great change.”
‘I don’t think there’s any perfect time’
Speaking with the Southborough School Committee, Martineau said the schools should “seize the opportunity.”
“We don’t know what the future holds, if there’s another variant on the horizon,” he said. “If we can provide this opportunity to lift masking, it’s in the best interest of students.”
Southborough School Committee Chair Roger Challen expressed concerns about informing the community on such short notice. Martineau attempted to alleviate Challen’s concerns.
“I don’t think there’s any perfect time,” he said, adding, “I think students will come to school masked tomorrow even if the requirement is lifted.”
Other members of the board cited high vaccination data and current recommendations from the state and federal governments.
“Every school except Neary has high vaccinations,” said committee member Kamali O’Meally. “This is the first time since the start of 2020 when all of the institutions and governing bodies are lining up [on recommendations].”
Other Northborough and Southborough schools, including Trottier and Melican middle schools and Algonquin Regional High School were able to lift their masks beginning on Monday.
Martineau said one out of every three students are still wearing their masks at those schools.
“It’s gone very well and students have been very respectful,” Martineau said.