Westport won't mandate masks in schools

But school committee will revisit potential mandates at every meeting going forward

By Ted Hayes
Posted 8/17/21

The Westport School Department will leave it to parents to decide whether to require their children to wear masks once school starts this fall.

At a special school committee meeting held Thursday, …

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Westport won't mandate masks in schools

But school committee will revisit potential mandates at every meeting going forward

Posted

The Westport School Department will leave it to parents to decide whether to require their children to wear masks once school starts this fall.

At a special school committee meeting held Thursday, members unanimously approved Michelle Orlando's motion to not mandate masks this coming school year, "knowing that with new information we can come back to the table," she said.

Her motion was amended by vice chairwoman Nancy Stanton-Cross, who added several stipulations:

— That it is strongly recommended that students from pre-K to grade six wear masks while indoors;

— That masks are strongly recommended "for those who are not yet vaccinated, and for all students staff and visitors into the building, while indoors";

— That masks are required on all vans and other student transportation, which she noted is already a state mandate;

— That masks are not required when students are eating snacks or lunch.

In addition, Ms. Stanton-Cross said, "I'd like to see the mask mandate revisited at every agenda moving forward until all of the science says we're not at risk."

The committee's vote comes as the number of COVID-19 cases in Westport continues to climb (see side story), and after the Massachusetts Association of School Committees recently issued stricter recommendations that call for masks in many in-school situations, Superintendent Tom Aubin said.

"We are in a very different place this year than we were last year," committee member Tony Viveiros said. Last year, "there was no science; not much of anything was really known. I think everyone was much more scared of everything."

Things have changed, he and several other members said. And with the "large amount of misinformation that's out there," Ms. Stanton-Cross added, "we have to keep things in perspective."

"We have a governor that's not mandating masks in schools," she said. "We have a board of health that is not mandating masks in school."

Meanwhile, the efficacy and safety of masks is still an open question, depending on what one reads, she said.

"So if we're to follow the science, I guess it's whatever science you're choosing to follow."

"We all want what is best for the students, " Ms. Orlando added.

"We want our kids in school (but) regarding masks ... you really don't know what to believe."

Vaccination numbers

During Thursday's meeting, Mr. Aubin cited a recent district-wide survey that shows that 94.7 percent of teachers who responded (about 50 percent of all teachers) have been vaccinated. In addition, 36 percent of school children aged 12 to 15 years have been vaccinated, alongside approximately 60 percent of students age 16 to 19.

Committee chairwoman Nancy Tavares said she believes the Westport School Department did an excellent job keeping students and staff safe last year, and that was in large part due to adherence to the science that was out at the time.

"I feel like that's what led to our successes," she said. While she still believes science must rule the day, "we really need to be open minded."

Though she said vaccination numbers appear good here, "this (Delta variant) strain is more easily transmissible among children, and at a greater capacity and rate. So that is something to keep in the back of our minds."

While strongly recommending that students in the younger grades be masked, she said, "I'm leaning a little more toward having this be a parent choice."

The school committee will next meet on Thursday, August 19, at which time masks and any potential mandates will again be open for discussion.

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