The Silver Lake Regional School Committee held a joint meeting with Union 31 as well as Dennett and Halifax School Committees on August 10. Vice Chair Eric Crone led the Silver Lake School Committee and chaired the meeting as Chair Paula Hatch was having technical difficulties. Sheila Vaughn called the Kingston Elementary School Committee meeting to order, Summer Schmaling the Halifax Elementary School Committee meeting, and Jon Wilhelmsen the Plympton Elementary School meeting.
Superintendent Jill Proulx offered to begin with an explanation of the latest guidance from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) and the Department of Public Health (DPH). Proulx said that both Departments “strongly recommend that all students in kindergarten through Grade 6 wear masks when indoors except students who cannot do so due to medical conditions or behavioral needs.” She said that they noted that masks aren’t necessary outdoors and may be removed to eat indoors. Both departments also strongly recommend that masks be worn by all unvaccinated inhabitants of the school regardless of whether they are staff, student, or visitor. “Any child or family member who chooses to mask should be supported in this choice,” Proulx read from the guidance. All staff and students are mandated to wear masks on school buses and in a medical setting.
Proulx said that a new test and stay protocol will soon be released by DESE and the DPH which will allow asymptomatic close contacts to remain in school while being tested daily rather than quarantining at home. Vaccinated staff and students will be exempt from quarantine. Proulx told the school committee members that they had also been provided with a letter from the school pediatrician as well as links to the masking recommendations from the American Pediatrics Association, the CDC, and the Massachusetts’ Association of School Counselors. “All advocating, in their own language, for universal masking in schools regardless of vaccination status,” Proulx said.
An attorney was present to discuss recommended policy changes. He said that the Committees present could make a determination that night regarding masking that would fall into one of three categories. The first would be universal masking, the second would be to adopt DESE guidelines, and the third would be not to require masks except for school transportation and the public health department. He said that he has had discussions with DESE on two issues, the first being the right to adopt masking policies more stringent than that required by them (this is allowed) and the second is in regard to student discipline when a student is required to but refuses to wear a mask. “The legal department of DESE has told me that they will be issuing additional recommendations and guidelines,” he explained. He further said that special legislation mandating universal masking may be forthcoming though he noted he did not know if it would pass and if the Governor would sign it. He advocated for the Superintendent to be given the authority to make changes as necessary.
Crone then opened the discussion to questions and comments from the various committees alternating between them. Andrews began asking, “If we go with a non-mask requirement and parents do not feel like they can send their students to school without everyone being required to wear masks, what are we required to provide for them – anything at this time?” The attorney responded that the child would be truant in that case. The flipside of that would also be true where if a mask is required as a policy and a caregiver elects not to send their child due to that policy, that child would also be truant. Andrews pointed out that if enough children did not attend school, that day would not count.
Vaughn said that the Kingston Board of Health just voted to mandate masks. The attorney said that as far as he knew, the Kingston Board of Health did not have the authority to mandate masks in schools. He said he would have to confer with DESE and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health to clarify. Timothy Lewis, with the Kingston School Committee, asked the attorney for his opinion on DESE’s recommendation. After clarifying that he was there more to offer legal counsel than opinion, the attorney stated, “The clearest policy and provides the greatest defense is universal masking.” Referring to no masking, he said it “does raise legal risk because even though permitted it is not recommended and it could result in greater legal liability for the school district.”
Silver Lake Regional School Committee member Gordon Laws asked the attorney to elaborate on the extent to which the District would be liable based on different scenarios. “I think that there really is no realistic threat if you either have universal masking or follow the DESE or DPH advisory because those are state sponsored and you have a right to follow the guidance of your state,” he said. He elaborated that were you to make policy less than that required by the State you could possibly be liable. Of the 17 school districts represented by the attorney he said none had thus far voted to not even recommend masks.
During Plympton’s opportunity to speak, Chair Jon Wilhelmsen said, “I’ll just make one point this time around… I think we’re all looking at the guidance right now and talking about the Superintendent having the ability to react to the different guidance; it’s not just about ratcheting up measures… but it’s also, as we hopefully get things under control, to be able to relax standards.” He said that would allow for quicker decisions instead of waiting for a School Committee meeting to be scheduled and held.
Silver Lake Regional School Committee member Emily Davis said, “I’m very uncomfortable that we’re even having this discussion.” She was referring to feeling like it was odd that they were discussing public health as members of school committees. The attorney said that he agreed and the State should really be telling schools what to do. He said if legislation goes through that is what will happen.
Halifax School Committee member Lauren Laws asked if they elect to follow DESE recommendations, how will they enforce who is and isn’t vaccinated. “As far as getting proof of vaccination, we have no legal right to do that with students or teachers or staff and that’s because of HIPPA,” the attorney explained. He said you can ask about vaccination status but you cannot require proof. “That’s one reason why some places are going to universal masking,” he added.
Timothy Lewis of the Kingston Elementary School Committee made a motion that their Committee rescind the masking policy. Committee member Jeanne Coleman seconded the motion. The motion was to rescind the current policy with the intention to vote through a different policy at a later date. Coleman said she was unsure why there was a need for any policy whatsoever beyond following the guidance of DESE. The attorney said that previously some school districts didn’t adopt a policy because there was a mandate in place. He said that the administration would have to put together a note to families letting them know that they are acting in accordance with DESE’s guidance. The Kingston Elementary School Committee voted to rescind their previous masking policy.
Plympton School Committee member Jason Fraser said that in light of DESE most likely coming out with further guidance, “I think it makes sense for us to table any ideas of making any further motions tonight for the Plympton School Committee.” The attorney forewarned that taking no position assumes that DESE will do what they said they are going to do, particularly before the start of the school year. Wilhelmsen pointed out that for Plympton, Proulx already has the ability to amend their policy based on whatever guidance comes out from DESE. Another member clarified that Plympton’s current policy mandates masks as it calls for following multiple sources including the CDC who is calling for a mandate. Fraser said, “I’m not comfortable making those medical determinations having these authorities over us including the District doctor now saying that he thinks all of our students should be masked in order to protect all of our vulnerable students and staff… this is a very confusing conversation and topic at this point and I would like to defer to those public health officials.” Fraser said that he wanted to leave what they had on the books while calling for a meeting prior to the start of school. Nicole Mahoney said that she respectfully disagreed. Mahoney said that she wished to rescind their policy in good faith that they would meet again before school reconvenes. Amy Hempel seconded Mahoney’s motion to rescind. The Committee voted unanimously to do so.
Schmaling made a motion for Halifax to rescind the policy requiring face coverings. Several members of the Halifax Elementary School Committee, including Schmaling, spoke out vehemently against requiring all students to wear face masks. Lauren Laws clarified that the vote they would be taking would only rescind the current policy as she said she would like to see them put a policy in place at a later date. “I feel like last year’s school was very successful because the kids were masked,” Laws said. With respect to another member’s claim that some of the Committee members calling for masks in school have been openly doing things on social media without masks, Laws said, “you know, everything you talked about was outside.” She added, “There are changing parameters right now that I feel like need to be watched.” Schmaling clarified that in rescinding their policy they are following DESE’s guidance. The vote to rescind the current policy was unanimous.
Silver Lake Regional School Committee then began their discussion. Committee member Christopher Eklund made a motion asking for Silver Lake to adjourn saying he no longer felt the format of the current meeting was conducive to conducting business. He recommended they reconvene before the start of school. Committee member Leslie-Ann McGee seconded that motion. Crone clarified that this would leave the current policy in place which requires masking but gives Proulx the ability to make amendments to the policy as she deemed fit provided it complies with CDC, DESE, and DPH guidance. Crone said he agreed with Fraser that they need to see what new guidance or mandates come down the pipeline prior to the start of school. The attorney clarified that if they didn’t meet to put a new policy in place, Proulx would be forced to go with the most stringent of guidance.
The Silver Lake Committee then took a vote to adjourn leaving the current policy requiring masks in place with the intention of meeting again before the start of the school year. No votes came from Paula Hatch, Lukasz Kowalski, Schmaling, and Davis. Yes votes came from Gordon Laws, Fraser, Eklund, McGee, and Crone. With votes weighted differently depending on town, the vote ended in favor of adjourning the meeting with the current policy still in place.
Vaughn asked that the Kingston School Committee stay on. Kingston Elementary School Committee member Cowett then made a motion that Kingston align its recommendation with respect to masking in schools with that of DESE. They voted unanimously in favor of Cowett’s motion. Halifax made a similar motion that was also voted through unanimously.
There was also a reorganization of Union 31. There was a motion and a second to appoint Gordon Andrews as Chair and it was voted through unanimously. Summer Schmaling was nominated for Vice Chair and like Andrews, voted through unanimously. Michael Cowett was nominated and voted in as Secretary of Union 31.