The Halifax Elementary School Committee met on Monday, August 30. The meeting began at the elementary school but was moved across the street to the Town Hall after several meeting participants refused to put on masks and the Superintendent and other school administrators had to leave to avoid being in violation of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s (DESE) mask mandate. Halifax does not mandate masks in public buildings hence the location change. School Committee member Lauren Laws chose to join the meeting remotely after the move.
Chair Summer Schmaling began the meeting by opening it to public participation. Ashley Gregor of Middleborough took the opportunity to speak. Gregor began, “I’m here because I strongly oppose the masks.” She continued, “I think in the long run this is really going to psychologically affect the kids. They don’t understand, they went all summer without masks now they’re going to step back into the school system and have to put a mask on… I’m sad that there’s not a lot of Halifax parents here tonight. I think that you guys need to be brave and you need to stand up… there’s a big home-schooling community in Halifax; there’s a lot of people that will support you and stand up for you and this isn’t right and I’m just here to stand and say this isn’t right – no masks for the kids.”
Another parent took to the microphone to quote from the Holocaust documentary The Last Days. She read, “People wonder how is it that we didn’t do something. We didn’t run away, we didn’t hide. Well, things didn’t happen at once. Things happened very slowly so each time a new law came out or a new restriction, we said well, just another thing – it will blow over. When we had to wear the yellow star to be outside, we started to worry.” Using her own words, she then asked the School Committee, “sound familiar?” Another woman took to the microphone saying, “I just want to say, my grandchild is in the public schools and I will not allow him to be muzzled because that’s exactly what this is and it is a health risk.” She continued, “It increases your chance of getting sick. The viruses fit through the mask itself so you’re only increasing the risk of getting sick – you’re going to notice a spike in the children getting sick this year. Why? Because of the muzzle.”
Schmaling then addressed those gathered saying, “I just want to make one statement and I want to be very clear as to why we’re sitting in this room right now. I do not agree with masking our children at all and I’ve been very, very outspoken about it.” She pointed out that the School Committee had agreed to rescind the previous year’s masking policy prior to the DESE mandate. She continued, “I was not aware that by holding the meeting in the Elementary School tonight that it would put the license in jeopardy of my Superintendent, my Assistant Superintendent, my Principal, and my Assistant Principal… I agree with a lot of what was said here tonight, and I want you to know that I will continue to fight for our kids.” She said she believed it to be an overreach of DESE and the Education Commissioner to mandate masks. Finally, she said that her reasoning for moving the meeting was to include the administrators and conduct all necessary business.
Halifax Elementary School Principal Kayne Beaudry gave an update on the staff meeting that he described as “a good vibe, good energy, lots of positivity there.” Beaudry thanked the custodians for all their hard work over the summer getting the classrooms set for the school year. “We can’t thank them enough for everything that they did,” he said. He also thanked the office staff for their work over the summer. “There’s a lot that goes into it behind the scenes; I don’t think that people realize it,” he explained. Regarding enrollment he said that it had been in flux right up to the first day. As of that day, the number stood at 564 students. There were four new staff members including a sixth-grade teacher and a new kindergarten teacher. He said there are still two open positions in the school. Beaudry also told the Committee that there are fans and air purifiers in every classroom.
Assistant Superintendent Ryan Lynch provided some grant updates saying that they closed out their ESSER 1 grant that was established as part of the Education Stabilization Fund in the CARES Act. Lynch said they had successfully applied for ESSER 2 that allots $106,000 to Halifax for the next year or so with the aim being to support missed teaching and learning opportunities. He said they were looking for input from teachers and staff regarding supports needed by students. Lynch also said that the school was granted a wellness coach by DESE.
Superintendent Jill Proulx touched upon the welcome back day for all staff noting that it was the first time that not only all faculty, but all staff was invited to the meeting. “The focus was on celebrating the efforts of those staff members and faculty members who came together to try to recreate the way that we teach and learn to the best of our ability,” Proulx said.
Proulx provided an update on guidance from DESE and the Department of Public Health (DPH). She reminded everyone that remote learning would no longer be recognized by the State, unlike last year. Proulx said that earlier that week, DESE had granted Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley authority to mandate masks for all public K-12 students through at least October 1. After October 1, the mask mandate may potentially be lifted for all vaccinated students and staff if the school meets a certain vaccination rate. Proulx said she was told that rate would be eighty percent. Proulx said they anticipate hosting vaccination clinics at the Kingston Intermediate School in September.
Proulx told the Committee that there are no social distancing requirements this school year. She also said that there will be a test and stay program implemented. “If you are a close contact, you would have the option to stay in school and be tested daily… as long as you are asymptomatic,” she explained. Schmaling asked if a parent opted out of the free testing, would they then have to quarantine. Proulx said they would have to quarantine for seven days from the date of exposure. Students would be sent work that they can complete at home. Proulx read, “close contacts are defined as individuals who have been within six feet of a COVID 19 positive individual while indoors for at least 15 minutes during a 24-hour period.” Individuals who are fully vaccinated and asymptomatic are exempt from testing and quarantine. Other exemptions include asymptomatic individuals who were exposed but masked and three feet apart as well as those on buses that were masked while windows were open. Another exception is for asymptomatic individuals who are exposed within 90 days of their own positive COVID test.
A member of the School Committee asked what would happen if a student without a viable exception refused to wear a mask. Beaudry said that they would likely have a conversation with the school nurse and himself and if the behavior continued the caregivers would have to become involved. “Hopefully at that point we would come to the conclusion that it’s a State mandate,” he said. Schmaling said, “I personally feel very strongly, I don’t know how the rest of the Committee feels, that if anyone is going to have a conversation with my child, who is a minor, regarding their health or their opinion on something and it’s pertaining to anything medical, I need to be present as a parent so I think that we should, perhaps, entertain a policy.” She went on to say that the policy would stipulate that if any staff members are to have conversations regarding masks, vaccines, etc. that a parent needs to be present.
Committee member Gordon Andrews argued that wearing a mask is a requirement to be in the building and not a medical issue. He argued that anyone in violation of that requirement would have to go through the chain of command, beginning with the teacher and ending with the Superintendent if still not in compliance. Schmaling disagreed vehemently and said, “I do not think that our least vulnerable population should ever be masked; it’s a hindrance to their learning and their education. They’re not effective, they’re not health measures; these cloth masks do nothing for anybody but make their kid have a bacteria filled wet rag on their face all day.” Committee member Lauren Laws who was zooming into the meeting argued that transmission in schools was negligible last year due to the mask wearing. Schmaling loudly countered, “That’s not true. That’s not true. You’re just making things up! You’re making up talking points and it’s not true.” Laws said, “We did not have a lot of transmission in school, that’s a fact.”
Committee member James Keegan steered the conversation back in the direction of whether a policy should be put in place requiring caregivers to be present for conversations regarding mask violations. He said that if those conversations were to take place absent a caregiver, they should not include discussions on health. “I want to make sure that teachers and staff in the school who may have very strong opinions one way or another, do not bring those opinions into the classroom,” Keegan said.
Schmaling brought up an incident in a classroom where she says a teacher asked the students to raise their hands if vaccinated calling it “highly inappropriate.” Laws pointed out that the students at the elementary school are not even yet eligible to be vaccinated. Schmaling raised her voice crying, “thank God for that.” She told Beaudry, “I am like full on Momma bear mode with this issue – full on and I will be pissed if my kid comes home and tells me that they got cornered and felt intimidated, coerced, bullied, discriminated against.” Regarding teacher and administration intervention, Laws said, “if they are enforcing a policy, that is all we are talking about.” Keegan was very adamant that he does not want to see any teachers or staff harassing students. Schmaling claimed to know of a Halifax Elementary School teacher who has been vocal about how she would handle disciplining a child not wearing a mask. Keegan asked if there would be progressive discipline for a staff member who was handling the situation inappropriately.
Keegan appeared confused as to whether the School Committee could lift the mask mandate for their school despite the DESE requirement. Silver Lake’s attorney corrected him and said that option only existed prior to the DESE mandate. Fellow committee member Jennifer Carroll expressed her disapproval of the mask mandate. She said that students would be confused as to why they were allowed not to wear a mask at various venues over the summer only to be told they must wear one while in school. Laws countered that things have changed in the last several weeks citing the more contagious nature of the more dominant Delta variant as one of the things that has changed. Laws said her own family is all fully vaccinated but said they went from not wearing masks to wearing masks indoors again. “Looking at how things have changed and that there is more spread again, I truly believe this is what will keep our kids in school,” Laws said. Schmaling asked Laws sarcastically, “Could you please send me some information on where you’re finding these magic masks that are FDA approved because I can’t find them anywhere. I even looked in my lab; I work in a virology/genetics lab.” Laws then asked Schmaling why she believed masks were being mandated. Schmaling said, “Because it’s a virtue signal.” Both Keegan and Schmaling then said, “We know why.” Schmaling continued, “That’s silly to even ask that question” to which Laws pressed her to further explain her reasoning. She did not. Carroll then interjected saying that the masks being worn clearly state that they will not protect you against viruses. Carroll said that if masks are being mandated, they should be proper masks and Schmaling added that they would also need goggles and a hazmat suit.
Schmaling also suggested that the School Committee send a letter to the State asking that the power to mandate masks be placed back under local control. Laws asked the attorney if it would have to be signed by everyone and was told it would not but that the letter would be sent if the majority of the Committee voted in favor of it.