Superintendent of Schools Philip Conrad late Wednesday recommended to the School Committee that the 2021-22 academic year begin with a universal student face-covering requirement to deter the spread of Covid-19.
The committee is scheduled to vote on the recommendation at its meeting next Tuesday, which is standard practice for policy decisions.
Conrad said the mask requirement is part of a continuum of health and safety measures that were in place last school year, including high-level ventilation, three-foot classroom distancing, sanitation, and personal protective equipment when needed.
“Nine weeks ago the world looked a lot different than it does today. Even four and three weeks ago,” Conrad said. “I think it’s prudent for us to start with all of our mitigation strategies in place as we start the school year that kept our kids and our faculty safe last year.”
Asked by committee member Dan Brosgol if there will be a vaccination requirement for faculty, the superintendent said it will be more a good-faith effort, as a mandate would necessitate contract negotiations. He added that there are “varied” opinions about mandatory student masking, but there has not been a survey of teachers.
Conrad also noted that Bedford has been approved for state-sponsored Covid pool-testing and the nursing staff is now working on protocols. Committee member Brad Morrison said he hopes the response to pool testing will improve over that of last spring.
Committee members Wednesday listened for almost two hours as individuals, mostly parents, presented cases for and against a face-covering requirement.
For the record, there were 29 calls in favor of a universal mask mandate, several stipulating that this also should apply to faculty and staff. There were 10 statements opposing mandatory masks; most of them pointing out that state agencies prefer the language “strongly recommend.”
But the exercise wasn’t a referendum; it was an invitation for parents and others to share their concerns and priorities.
Several of the speakers read prepared statements. A few exceeded the three-minute time limit; committee Chair Sarah Scoville cut off each one mid-sentence. But none of the commentary was acrimonious or personalized. And speakers on both sides thanked the committee and administration for their efforts.
Speakers cited various studies to support their respective positions. Several mentioned the support of national organizations for mask mandates; others noted state agencies only “strongly recommend.” Thirty-seven Bedford residents plus two from Hanscom Air Force Base, spoke one at a time, virtually.
Among the rationales offered for requiring masks in schools were:
- Covid cases among children are increasing nationally.
- Vaccinated individuals can still spread the virus.
- Conditions are changing, particularly concerning the Delta variant.
- Bedford Covid numbers are low, but the town isn’t insulated from regional trends.
- There is no remote learning option so classrooms need to be safe for everyone.
- Children learn that they are helping others as well as protecting themselves.
- The virus is evolving. If the initial approach s conservative, requirements can be relaxed when conditions improve.
- Masks are one of several levels of protection.
Comments in opposition to a mandatory masking policy focused on several points:
- There are mental health issues that could be more easily identified if faces were visible.
- Summer school and Summer Adventures took place in Bedford unmasked, and there were no Covid cases.
- Decisions should be based on data, not out of fear of what might happen.
- Parents should have the option of deciding what is best for their children.
- Masks aren’t always effective in preventing viral spread, and can even cause secondary illnesses. Students don’t wear them properly anyway.
Brosgol asserted that there has been “no leadership coming from any level, no political cover for any of these decisions.”
Committee members also spoke of the importance of what Brosgol called an “off-ramp” when conditions allow. Committee member Ann Guay said the decision should be revisited every three or four weeks. Their colleague JoAnn Santiago said it would be harmful to relax mandatory face covering and then reimpose it.
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 781-983-1763