It’s official: Mask mandate approved for Portsmouth schools

Some parents urge School Committee to defy governor’s executive order

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PORTSMOUTH — When students return to Portsmouth schools on Sept. 8, they’ll be required to wear a mask inside the classroom, the School Committee decided in a 5-1 vote Tuesday night.

The decision had pretty much been made for the board beforehand since Gov. Daniel McKee, under pressure from some school officials statewide as well as legislators, signed an executive order Aug. 19 requiring full masking in public schools.

That didn’t stop several parents, however, from urging the committee to defy the governor’s mandate at Tuesday’s meeting, which was held in the Portsmouth High School auditorium, with masks required for everyone attending.

Some of those same parents had spoken up during a raucous committee meeting Aug. 11, during which 22 out of 28 speakers opposed a mask mandate. Most of them argued it should be up to parents to decide whether their child wears a face covering in school. Masks do more harm than good by delaying children’s development both in academics and socially, deprive children of quality air to breathe, were unsanitary and leave rashes on their faces, some of them said.

Tuesday’s meeting wasn’t nearly as contentious, but there was no less passion on both sides of the argument.

“The governor’s mandate is unauthorized,” said Natali Orbon, a local parent who urged the committee to make masking optional, despite Gov. McKee’s order. “He has no legal authority to do this; he’s already being sued. You have a lawyer. I encourage you to use that lawyer. I have a lawyer as well.”

Another parent, Warren Caldwell, said he was incredulous the board would even consider a mask mandate.

“It’s unbelievable to me that the smartest people in the room would continue to legislate this mandate,” said Mr. Caldwell, adding that masks cause psychological damage to children and hurt their academic performance. “I know what’s best for my child — not you or any government official. When did we decide to give up freedom of liberty?” 

One good thing has come from this discussion, he said. “You have awoken a sleeping giant. If you continue these mandates, shame on you. Be the change and set the tone for the rest of the school districts and our country. Just say no.”

Sofia Sinclair, participating via Zoom, acknowledged the committee was “in a tough position,” but said it was focusing too much on masks for students. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she said, has reported that masking unvaccinated teachers and improving ventilation in schools was more important than requiring students to wear face coverings. Masking children, she said, has not been found to have a “statistically significant” benefit. 

She urged the board to allow students to remove their masks once they were seated in their classrooms. At the very least, schools should make an exception for students who require speech therapy, she said. “My son has regressed. You have to listen to me. My son needs speech services in school,” she said.

School officials said speech therapists have been using plexiglas and transparent “smiley masks” for some students, although they tend to fog up.

Ms. Sinclair also noted that during the last school board meeting, it was reported that the nine COVID-19 cases in Portsmouth put the town in the “substantial” risk category. “If nine cases puts us into substantial, then I’m afraid we’ll never leave substantial,” she said.

Superintendent Thomas Kenworthy, however, said with the Delta variant of COVID, cases in Portsmouth are continuing to increase. Local cases have more that tripled since the Aug. 11 meeting, he said, with the latest number now at 34, he said.

“We are in the middle of another surge,” said Mr. Kenworthy, who expressed optimism that the district can eventually ease up on some restrictions once the numbers decline and younger students are allowed to get vaccinated.

Trust put in committee

The committee also heard from a few parents who supported whatever decision it made. Jason Defalco, who has sons entering grades 5 and 10, thanked the board and administrators for their efforts last year. 

“It is because of your hard work and effort that our schools have remained open,” he said. “The School Committee and the superintendent will make the right decision, because they have all along. You have not steered us wrong yet.”

Allyson Harple, who has a daughter in sixth grade and a son in fourth, agreed. “I’m so thankful that my children were able to stay in school all last year,” she said.

Although she didn’t have a strong opinion on masking “one way or the other,” Ms. Harple said she agreed with Ms. Sinclair that students should be allowed to remove their masks while seated in a classroom.

Survey results

Mr. Kenworthy shared the results of a district-wide survey on face coverings, that appeared to show a preference for full masking. Both staff and parents were surveyed, with about 50 percent of each group responding, he said.

Among school staff, 58 percent were in favor of full masking. Twenty percent said the policy should be flexible based on Portsmouth’s transmission rates, while 15 percent said masks should be recommended but not required. The remaining 7 percent were placed in the “other” category.

Among parents, 48 percent favored full masking, with 18 percent saying they wanted a flexible policy based on transmission rates. Fourteen percent of respondents said masks should be recommended but not required, and 22 percent were placed in “other.” (Mr. Kenworthy said comments ran the gamut from “Unmask our children” to “Why are you even debating the recommendations of health and safety experts?”)

The superintendent said the district will not be offering a full distance-learning option this year. Students at increased risk of severe illness, including those with special healthcare needs, should contact the school principal if special accommodations are needed, he said. Homeschooling is always an option for families, but it’s not encouraged, he said.

Responding to a question from a parent, Mr. Kenworthy said that for the most part, full distance learning would be allowed only if an entire classroom had to be quarantined.

Monica Taft, a district teacher for 28 years, said one of her biggest concerns was the fact that fifth- and sixth-grade students she taught last year had to sit with their “pod” in the same room all day except for group trips to the bathroom or for recess. “My concern is they were more affected by being in one room all day than they were by wearing those masks,” said Ms. Taft.

According to Joao Arruda, middle school principal, students will remain in pods this year but they will be allowed to move to their different teachers instead of staying put all day.

5-1 vote

The committee voted, 5-1, to follow Mr. Kenworthy’s recommendation to continue to require masks inside the school when classes start next month. Disposable masks will be available to both students and staff, and the district will reevaluate the policy as new information about transmission rates comes in.

Committee member Allen Shers voted against the motion, saying he was confused about a lot of the information coming out about COVID. “I don’t know what to believe,” he said.

Referring to the superintendent’s comment that the district could lose $2 million in funding if it defied the governor’s executive order, Mr. Shers said, “I’m 72 and a half and I disdain when the government tells me I have to vote a certain way to get a certain amount of money for the kids.”

“One size does not fit all” when it comes to COVID mitigation policies, Mr. Shers said. “We should be masters of our own destiny, but once again we are not,” he said.

Juan Carlos Payero was absent from the meeting.

The full fall reopening plan can be viewed here.

Police presence questioned

A Portsmouth police officer was stationed outside the entrance to PHS during Tuesday’s meeting. In an e-mail to The Portsmouth Times Wednesday morning, Mr. Kenworthy said the detail was hired out of "an abundance of caution based on things that have happened at School Committee meetings around the state." The officer was not there to enforce a mask mandate, he added.

Larry Fitzmorris, head of the taxpayer group Portsmouth Concerned Citizens, took the committee to task for that decision.

“I don’t see the need for that frankly, and I see that they’re here tonight. I think the committee should trust the citizens of this town more than they do,” said Mr. Fitzmorris, adding he couldn’t recall a time when it was necessary to post police officers at a meeting.

“The presence of the police will intimidate those people who wish to come forward and speak,” he said.

Since Mr. Fitzmorris’s comments took place during the public comment portion of the meeting, by law committee members weren’t allowed to respond.

In his e-mail Wednesday, Mr. Kenworthy said only one officer was hired for the detail, but at one point another officer arrived to confer with his colleague.

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