Photo: the Change.org petition on ending the Belmont schools mask mandate
At the final Belmont School Committee meeting before the February vacation break, Brian Brady directed a provocative hypothetical to School Superintendent John Phelan and the committee.
”I’m curious … what would occur if students came to school on February 28 without masks?” asked the father of three, then pointing to a decision by Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker on Feb. 9 to end mask mandates in schools on the last day of the month.
Brady continued tossing “what-if” scenarios at Phelan including what the town’s “remedies” would be for those “children who simply chose to go to school without … a mask on.”
A few minutes later, Patrick Whittemore would echo Brady’s interest in the causality of not wearing masks.
”I want to kind of double down on Brian’s question,” said Whittemore, who has been a regular participant at committee meetings advocating against the wearing of masks. “If kids show up on February 28 without masks on, what actions, if any, will the school department take?”
[Phelan would not provide details of a schools response to the two, seemingly prepared for the question by recognizing “that this has been a hard two years and … [going to school with a mask] is a common goal that everyone has in doing so in a safe way” and the community should continue to show “some patience” until that can be done.]
While similar queries from a pair of parents could be serendipity, the questions of the likely reaction by school principals on coverless students could also announce a specific challenge to the district’s mask directive by a determined group in town. While on-line parent boards and Facebook pages have been quiet on taking direct action protests on school property, the question remains whether some believe a demonstration would be a viable act to commit.
While not contacted to questions directed to Whittemore, Brady contacted the Belmontonian to clarify his public statement.
“Absolutely not,” Brady said on facilitating a mask protest. “The notion that I am part of protest movement that encourages anyone, especially school children, to break to law, is deeply offensive. It’s also pretty dumb.”
“I would only endorse removal of masks for children in schools after it is approved by the [Board of Health] and [School Committee],” he said.
“I called school committee last night because I wanted to,” said Brady. “My questions were actually pretty simple.”
While eastern Massachusetts has been spared the aggressive confrontations seen in other parts of the country, protests are occurring. On Feb. 18, a Boston Globe article (Boston Public Library children’s rooms targeted by group opposing mask requirements, staff say)focused on maskless families encamping in Children’s Room at branches of the Boston Public Library, refusing to comply with the city’s indoor mask mandate. The scofflaws confronted librarians while making videos of the confrontation with staff and eventually police.
Since the beginning of the year, a growing number of Belmont parents have been questioning the need of mask and other protections to the Covid-19 virus. The call for the end of requirements are varied and long standing: masks are ineffective, they are the cause of mental health issues, they escalate learning loss especially among early learners and others.
Those parents have seen their positions bolstered by actions by state and local governments and by the federal health. On Friday, Feb. 25, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance in which healthy people can go maskless if they live in a county with low rates of infection and their hospitals are not overwhelmed with Covid patients. And Middlesex county rates a low risk in those measures.
While anti-mask parents are pointing to the changing mask landscape, Belmont – which under state law has final say on health policy – isn’t eager to deviate from the course it has set for more than two years. Since the beginning of the pandemic in March, 2020, the town and schools have given the Board of Health and the Heath Department ultimate leeway in dictating the direction the town would keep its residents safe and healthy, including mandating masks for indoor spaces and schools.
While residents have debated and argued with officials on aspects of health issues – two candidates were elected to the school committee in April 2021 to advocate, in part, for in-school instruction – the Health Board’s policies have been followed with little real opposition.
While a possible Monday protest by students and parents at schools is, at best, speculative, one set of parents has announced its intention to face up to school officials and call for the end of masking in Belmont.
Led by Antonio Molle, the ad hoc body dubbed Belmont MA Against Mandates will be knocking on the door of the School Administration Building on Pleasant Street at 3 p.m., Monday, Feb. 28 to deliver a physical copy of a Change.org petition – currently signed by 264 residents – which “demands” the immediately lifting of “the mask mandate for ALL Belmont Public School students, staff, visitors.”
“The group of Belmont residents is handing in the petition in light of the School Committee’s recent delay in the unmasking of Belmont public school students,” stated Molle, who has recently been a frequent participant at Zoom meetings advocating anti-mask positions, including calling for the Select Board not to impose a Covid passport in Belmont, which the board found to be a bit of a head scratcher as no board member or residents has ever advocated for it in the Town of Homes.
And as the group arrives at the school administration’s door, town and school officials are preparing to discuss and likely vote on continuing the indoor mask requirement. In early February, the Board of Health discussed creating a new data rubric for ending the mandate relying on CDC guidelines.
“Mandates are not going on forever,” said Health Board Chair Donna David at the February meeting. The board voted to meet on March 7 to take a likely vote on a recommendation whether to end the requirement or continue the mandate. And the next day, Tuesday, March 8, the School Committee will discuss the guidance and possible vote on the measure, said Amy Checkoway, chair of the school committee.