Universal Mask Mandate Implemented to Start the 2021-22 Academic Year
BY REBECCA ZHANG '22
All students and staff must wear masks this fall, the ABRSD School Committee decided in a 9:1 vote on Thursday.
Though eighty-nine percent of eligible ABRHS students have at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, ABRSD School Physician Jasmin Darling recommended all students and staff wear masks to begin the year. The approved procedure follows the CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines for universal indoor masking regardless of vaccination status.
Superintendent Peter Light may revise the mask guidance if the regional incidence rate falls below 8.5 cases per 100,000 residents over a 14-day period. Under such conditions, masks are optional for fully vaccinated students in grades 7-12, but students in grades K-6 and all unvaccinated students must wear masks indoors. Light will review the mask requirement monthly beginning the last week of September.
While the policy specifically cites a low incidence rate as a determining factor, Light stated that he will consider several factors, including school-based transmission history, student and staff vaccination rates, and the district medical team’s advice.
The School Committee opened the discussion to public comment and received a variety of responses from students, teachers, parents, and other community members.
Acton-Boxborough Education Association (ABEA) President Mike Balulescu spoke on behalf of the district’s teachers, citing that ninety-one percent of the 300 teachers surveyed support the policy. Although many find the universal masking policy less than ideal, “teachers understand the incredible importance of keeping our school buildings and classrooms as safe as possible for adults and children,” he commented.
Speaking in support of the policy, several parents emphasized masks’ role in completely preventing school-based transmission thus far at AB and its importance in countering the highly transmissible Delta variant’s spread. A parent noted that online learning following a COVID outbreak would be far more detrimental to students than wearing masks.
Some argued against the policy. Many cited the lower transmission rate among children, and others worried about the mental health implications associated with mask wearing. A few argued with myths about masks, such as the misconception that they increase carbon dioxide intake, to support their argument. A parent also voiced the pandemic fatigue that many feel. She recalled the many other COVID protocols over the past two academic years, concluding that “nothing will ever be enough.”
From an epidemiologist reiterating masks’ ability to slow transmission to a high school student hoping to see his friends’ faces again, opinions evidently differed across the distinct. “[Parents] are advocating for their children and how they’re experiencing their schools,” Light said of the varying perspectives. “It’s important to be able to understand that people can be very well informed about this but may come to different conclusions.”
Even though the School Committee typically waits two weeks to vote on a policy, Chairperson Adam Klein noted the proximity to school beginning and the abundance of public feedback already received. All committee members supported the procedures, but one voted against it, suggesting the policy be more concise. The district plans to notify communities of the mask mandate and other guidance either Friday or Monday.
“The key goal here is that everyone is protected,” School Committee Member Evelyn Abayaah-Issah said. “The only solution we have right now—other than the vaccine—is to mask, and it may not feel good... but that is the only thing we can do right now to keep each other safe.”