Photo: A continuation of the current mask mandate is being proposed by the Board of Health
After an hour long debate, the Belmont Board of Health voted unanimously on July 26 to “strongly recommend” a universal indoor masking requirement for students and staff at Belmont’s public and private schools to begin at the start of the new school year in September.
The decision came about 24 hours before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday, July 27, endorsed the wearing of masks by teachers, staff members, students and visitors in schools regardless of vaccination status and the rate of community transmission of the virus.
Monday’s 3-0 vote came after the board nearly approved a mandatory mask requirement but took a step back from the more restrictive sanctions to allow the Belmont School Committee to have its own discussion before accepting or rejecting the board’s decision.
NOTE: Belmont Select Board will discuss a possible town-wide mask mandate at its Monday, August 2 meeting.
But the board’s chair made it clear that it would come back with more definitive mask measures if it believes the school committee will not commit to a clear masking policy.
“[The School Committee] must know what we’re leading up to so a strong recommendation is pretty strong,” said Board Chair Donna David.
The board’s action comes as the highly contagious COVID-19 Delta variant is causing positive cases and hospitalizations to increase after the rates of infection has been dropping over the past four months. The CDC noted in its revised guidance of this week that those fully vaccinated and become infected with the Delta variant can harbor large amounts of the virus as seen in unvaccinated people, thus becoming spreaders of the disease. Those people should return to wearing masks indoors in certain situations, including when vulnerable people are present.
Wesley Chin, the director of the Belmont Health Department, told the board parents were looking for direction from the town on masks as schools are set to open in six weeks. David told the approximately 30 people attending on Zoom that the board’s decision would follow current “scientific knowledge” rather than being decided by a “popular vote.”
“We’re doing it in the best interest of the public health for everyone,” she said.
Vice Chair Julie Lemay said the recent jump in cases in the past week after a relative quiet summer “this information is evolving and it’s evolving quickly.” She believed that to prioritizing moving kids back in the school and keeping schools open, “using mitigation strategies including mask wearing is going to be important” with the knowledge that the policy will be reevaluated during the school year.
Adrienne Allen pointed to guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics that stressed that if school districts’ goal is “to keep all of our children in person in school all year, universal masking for staff and children is the way to do it.” Until questions of vaccine effectiveness and other issues are addressed, “it’s better to stay the course, follow the AAP and have masking until more is known,” said Allen.
In addition the board members, Director of Nursing Services Beth Rumley spoke on the current mitigation measures the school district have established for the summer session including masks, following up on all absentees and testing for anyone who is out sick. “I hear the concerns about masking but when you have a high volume of students and you have masking, it works,” she said. Nor is masking the only mitigation that needs to be concerned about including checking students and staff who have symptoms and creating a plan to return to school. “We’re going to make decisions with everyone’s safety in mind,” said Rumley.
The majority of residents who spoke Monday were in favor of the masking option. For Mariola Magovcevic, a mask requirement is the only way she will send her two children – one who is at high risk in catching infections – to elementary school in September. Speaking on making mask wearing an option, Magovcevic said such an action “does not protect me from children from spreading the virus who are not wearing a mask.”
Playing roulette with other people’s lives
Heather Rubeski said she’s not worried about her children being infected, “I’m worried about what they’re going to bring home” with her husband’s inoculation just 60 percent effective due to existing conditions. “It’s playing roulette with other people’s lives,” she said. Speaking to residents who have told her that their children “have suffered enough” by learning at home and following mask and other mitigation strategies at schools, Rubeski spoke how her niece and nephew lost their father to COVID as a true cost of suffering.
“It is not suffering to wear a mask for the vast majority of people. It’s unfortunate that as a community we can’t come together a little better and to this one basic thing that’s going to protect so many people … and considering all the families and not just the children in school but teacher families and our families,” Rubeski told the board.
There was not unanimity at Monday’s meeting for the recommendations. Speaking as a resident, School Committee Member Jamal Saeh attacked the board saying that while it earlier declared any recommendation or requirement would be made based on the available science, “I didn’t see it in today’s conversation.”
After pointing to selected studies from the New England Journal of Medicine on the effectiveness of vaccines on different COVID variants, “I don’t know exactly other than our community members who are pushing for [mandates], why we’re having this conversation right now,” said Saeh, who then proposed a “proper” conversation via a large public forum to hear from a “large swath of the community.” He also suggested creating a strategy on mask wearing for vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals and when, upon reaching some undetermined rate of infection, would the mandates end.
In response, David pointed out that there is still much to be known about the Delta variant that carries a lot more viral load within people. “There are new things coming [from the CDC] and school is about to start,” she said, noting that determining a percentage of infection or other numbers that show a decrease in cases “is an evolving process.”
“I don’t think there’s an easy answer,” said David, a comment seconded by Allen, who is a physician. “I don’t feel prepared to set a … number [when to lift a mandate]. I would want to consult with others” but would still follow the AAP guidelines “if we care about equity because it’s really an equity issue for all students.”
While there was consensus among the board for masking and other mitigation measures for indoor activities, LeMay wasn’t prepared to make their decision a requirement for the school district to follow. Rather, she felt the Belmont School Committee should be given the opportunity to discuss the board’s “strong recommendation” on all people wearing masks in schools.
While the board effectively “punted” to the school committee further discussion of the issue, the board said it would moved its next scheduled meeting up to early/mid August to review the information coming from the CDC and the state’s Board of Health with an eye towards following the AAP in its recommendation.
“Look, no matter what we decide, people are going to be upset but that’s not our concern. We’re concerned but it’s not going to influence what were going to do,” said David.