Optimal Social Distancing in Schools Debated at Board of Health Meeting

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Optimal social distancing in the school environment (including but not limited to classrooms, hallways, lunchrooms, school buses) was discussed at length at the meeting of the Board of Health on January 4. 

Board member Ann Kiessling, consistent with the position taken at prior meetings, argued that there is no published data that clearly establishes the relative value of 6’ over 3’ of social distancing between students as a way of slowing or preventing virus transmission.  After the Board’s last meeting on December 21 during which the issue was discussed, Kiessling asked that Health Director Heidi Porter and Community Nurse Mark Waksmonski research the question further.   Based on the information they provided, Kiessling noted that “The bottom line is that there are no public studies on the relative value of 6’ vs. 3’ for children…Nobody has looked at it.  Nobody has studied it.  And there is quite a bit of evidence that 3’ of distance is probably ok….I am not advocating either but I am advocating that there is no science that drives 6’ is better than 3’ in a child’s classroom.”

Member Brunkhorst disagreed, and said that she interpreted the data to mean that it is not only distancing which contributes to lower transmission, but distancing in conjunction with masking, cleaning high touch surfaces, and daily screening.  Chairman Sarah Thompson agreed.

Doug Horton, a parent of three children in the school system, had asked to be allowed to address the Board on this agenda item.  He asked for greater clarity from the Board about what criteria they are using for the recommendations they are making in response to the pandemic.  He pointed to inconsistencies between the Board’s website which references 6’ as a “directive” from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) and Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) and other communications which refer to 6’ as “guidance.”  He asked that the Board website be updated to more accurately reflect the difference between “guidance” and “mandates” under which the town is operating.  In a similar vein, Horton also asked for clarification as to “what and how would cause you to conclude closer than 6’ is safe?”  In closing, he said “I am simply trying to understand how the collective decision-makers here in town balance the various and serious risks.”

In the ensuing discussion board member Kiessling said that in the conversation she had with a senior advisor at DESE she was told that not all the school districts in Massachusetts are following a 6’ guideline.  Chair Thompson asked if those decisions were being made as a function of being a community with low caseloads. Kiessling said no and that she would provide supporting data on this to other Board members.

Chair Thompson then asked Director Porter to read the language of a motion she had asked Porter to prepare to affirm current safety guidelines being followed in the schools. The original motion called for employing maximum social distancing possible, use of masks by students and staff at all times, promoting frequent hand washing, sanitizing, and daily screening of staff and students for symptoms.  The motion was amended after some discussion to include language referencing maximum air exchange and consideration of a testing program.  The motion was adopted 4-0-1, with Kiessling abstaining.

Member Kiessling then asked the Board to discuss whether or not it should call for an emergency meeting if a decision to close the schools was being considered by the School Committee.  The purpose of such a meeting would be to provide input to the School Committee from a public health perspective.  Director Porter said it was her belief that since closing the schools was not a decision in the purview of the Board of Health but rather of the Superintendent or School Committee, it likely would be unable to call for an emergency meeting under Open Meeting regulations.  Chair Thompson said that Director Porter was the agent of the Board of Health in terms of providing input, consistent with emergency powers delegated to her at the start of the pandemic.  Kiessling then asked that that decision be reviewed at the next meeting.  Thompson asked Porter to research both questions and report back at the Board’s next meeting.

Director Porter reported on FY22 budget preparations which will be discussed at the Finance Committee meeting on January 14.  Most items will be level-funded with the exception of the expansion of hours of the Community Nurse position from 35 to 40 hours per week due to pandemic-related responsibilities.  Additional funds will be needed for the vaccination program on a contingency basis pending directives from the state and federal government as to what kind of reimbursements will be permitted.  A brief discussion followed regarding updating the mission statement, goals, and objectives for the Department of Health.  Two motions were then made and passed; the first regarding the amended mission statement and goals, 4-0-1, with Kiessling abstaining.  The second motion accepted the proposed FY22 budget to be presented to the Finance Committee, 5-0.

Items 5 and 6 on the evening’s agenda having to do with statements by the Board on Covid-19 testing and on the pandemic were deferred until its next meeting on January 19.  The delay was requested by member Kiessling as the Board is awaiting a decision from the State Ethics Commission regarding a potential conflict of interest question for Kiessling.  Until a determination is made, Kiessling is precluded from participating in any and all discussions having to do with testing.  A motion to that effect was made and passed, 5-0.

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