As vaccination rates ramped up last spring and the daily count of Covid-19 cases came down, many hoped this fall’s start of school could feel more like normal. That no longer seems like a possibility.
School officials on the Outer Cape are discussing Covid-related safety protocols as they prepare to open classrooms on Tuesday, Sept. 7. Remote learning is not an option in Massachusetts, so all students will attend classes in person, five days a week.
Provincetown, Truro, and Wellfleet currently are under board of health orders requiring universal masking indoors, due to the recent spike in cases. Meanwhile, across the state, school officials had been putting off decisions on masks, hoping Gov. Charlie Baker would mandate them. The governor, however, continues to make it clear he is leaving the decision on requiring masks in the hands of local districts.
In late July, the Dept. of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) and the Dept. of Public Health (DPH) made a series of “recommendations” — not mandates. They “strongly recommend” that all students from kindergarten through grade 6 wear masks when indoors, except those with certain medical conditions or behavioral needs. Masks are unnecessary outdoors.
The state guidance also recommends that vaccinated students not be required to wear masks, but it recommends a mask requirement for all unvaccinated staff and any unvaccinated students in grade 7 and above.
A federal order requires that masks be worn on all school buses.
The Mass. Teachers Association’s board of directors took issue with the state’s guidelines, calling on the governor to follow the mask guidance offered by the Centers for Disease Control and endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which calls for mandatory masks from pre-kindergarten through higher education, regardless of vaccination status.
“Universal masking and social distancing must remain in place for the foreseeable future,” the MTA board wrote. But neither the governor nor the state agencies have shifted their positions.
Provincetown Schools Supt. Suzanne Scallion described her schools as “the canary in the coal mine,” based on this summer’s jump in cases. “We are still developing protocols, but we will likely be back in masks,” Scallion said. “Right now, the mask policy from last year is still in effect.”
Provincetown students are housed in the former high school, which has high ceilings and a lot of space. Last year, school officials increased the air exchange rate in the rooms to four times each hour. “We stayed relatively healthy last year,” Scallion said.
Because the lunchroom isn’t well ventilated, though, students ate in their classrooms. “That will likely continue this fall,” she said.
Scallion envisions universal masking. The district comprises pre-kindergarten through grade 8, so some of the older students have likely been vaccinated. Still, at present, vaccinations are available only to those 12 years old and older.
Eva Enos, chair of the Provincetown School Committee, said in an email that her panel is “thrilled to welcome our students back to school for in-person learning.” The committee has a meeting next week and will take up the masking issue then, but “we have had no complaints about mask wearing in the past, and I have not heard of any now,” Enos said. “I think parents are simply grateful that the kids can go to school in person.”
Truro has its own pre-kindergarten through grade 6 school district. Classes are set to get underway Sept. 7. The Truro School Committee is expected to make a decision on Covid protocols at its meeting on Aug. 19.
While Eastham and Wellfleet have their own elementary school committees, the schools are part of the Nauset Regional School District, with Brooke Clenchy as interim superintendent.
The regional school committee’s policy subcommittee met Tuesday and voted to keep mandatory masking in place for all, but that’s just the first step. The final decision will be made by a joint meeting of all the district’s school committees on Aug. 23.
Clenchy said all the superintendents on the Cape have been communicating with each other regarding fall requirements. “We weren’t sure whether the governor or [education] commissioner would change their minds, so we were all hanging tight,” she said Monday. “It’s clear now that they’re not going to do it, so we’re all pulling in our school committees.”
The Nauset superintendent called masking a sensitive issue. “I’m getting calls from both sides,” she said. Some are strongly opposed to masks, she said, but the medical community is calling for them to be universal.
Nurses from the district have been in touch with state health officials, and they will relay that information to the school committees.
“At the end, we have to look at it and say, ‘What’s safe for our children, our staff, and our communities?’ and that has to be what guides us,” Clenchy said.
Anne Needel, a teacher at Nauset Regional Middle School, noted that sixth-graders are still below the age for vaccination. “I think that we’re assuming we’ll all have to wear masks,” she said. Needel believes most of the teachers at her school have been vaccinated. “I personally don’t know any teacher who is unvaccinated,” she said.
Other safety measures, including hand-washing stations and sanitizing, will be in place as well this year. And while one infection among students could force a whole pod of children into quarantine for several days last year, a new “stay and test” method will allow all but those with positive tests to remain in class. Under the program, students in close contact with someone who tests positive can remain in school as long as they have the BinaxNow rapid antigen tests done at school daily for five days and remain virus-free.
Deidre Arvidson, the Barnstable County public health nurse, said that, from what she’s hearing, most schools on Cape Cod will require masks. “There’s been a lot going on, so I think most will start with masks, at least until all ages can be vaccinated,” she said.