PORTSMOUTH — Students, staff members and visitors will have the option of wearing masks inside any of the public schools starting on March 7, according to a new policy approved by the …
PORTSMOUTH — Students, staff members and visitors will have the option of wearing masks inside any of the public schools starting on March 7, according to a new policy approved by the School Committee Monday night.
The committee voted 5-1 in favor of Superintendent Thomas Kenworthy’s recommended amendment to the masking policy during a special 5:30 p.m. meeting. The meeting was scheduled shortly after Gov. Daniel McKee, during a COVID-19 briefing last week, lifted his statewide executive order on indoor mask-wearing in public schools effective March 4, and put the burden on local districts in coming up with a plan after that date.
Although the new policy still strongly recommends that individuals “follow the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH)” by wearing a mask indoors “regardless of vaccination status,” it makes mask-wearing optional beginning on March 7. The policy does not apply to school buses, which still require masks under a federal mandate.
The amendment also gives the superintendent the power to take any “immediate action” in the event of an unanticipated change in circumstances related to the COVID-19 pandemic within the Portsmouth School Department. Likewise, any emergency health order from the State of Rhode Island or an executive order by the governor regarding masking in schools shall supersede the policy.
The policy doesn’t impact any other COVID-19 prevention protocols that the district already has in place, Kenworthy said.
Only committee member Isabelle Kelly voted against approving the amended policy.
“I can appreciate that people are done with COVID and they just want to get back to normal,” said Kelly, who has three small children. “I’m just not confident that now’s the right time."
Student vaccinations rates “are still relatively low,” she said, adding that “mask choice” isn’t a good option when it comes to protecting everyone from COVID.
'Like they're being punished'
Committee member Thomas Vadney, noting that Kenworthy said he could not recall any students or staff members needing to be hospitalized due to COVID-19, said he was in favor of masks being optional because students are in a lower-risk group for contacting the disease.
“It’s almost like they’re being punished,” he said.
Committee member Juan Carlos Payero, who voted in favor of the superintendent’s recommendation, said the district has always “led with science” in justifying its COVID-19 protocols.
People will soon have the prerogative to not wear a mask inside the school, but it’s important that people who choose to wear a mask are protected.
“Today is not a win for either side of an argument that should never have become political,” he said. “I hope going forward we say yes to treating each other better.”
Committee member Karen McDaid voted in favor of the policy but says she’ll continue following the guidance of CDC and RIDOH by wearing a mask. The time has come, however, to make masks optional, she said, adding that the district can work to make school buildings safe for both those who choose to wear a mask and those who don’t.
Committee member Fred Faerber III, who made the motion to adopt the superintendent’s recommendations, said he was confidence that the district will continue to make safety paramount for students and staff.
“It’s always been about the safety of not just the children but the parents and everybody who comes into contact with an infected individual,” he said.
Emily Copeland, who chairs the committee, also voted in favor of the amendment, despite believing that it felt “a little early.”
“I wish the governor would have kept it on until mid- or the end of March, when we were getting into spring and open windows,” she said.
However, she was glad that, under the policy, the mask mandate can be reinstated should the need arise.
The meeting lasted about 35 minutes. The next regular school board meetings are scheduled for March 8 and March 22.