An emotionally charged Feb. 23 meeting of all five school committees in the Nauset region ended with the members voting to relax the mask mandate that has been in effect since fall 2020. But the new policies will be implemented at different times in different schools.
A “mask-optional” policy adopted by the regional committee for Nauset Middle and High schools will take effect on Monday, March 7. The elementary school committees in Eastham, Orleans, and Brewster voted to lift their mask mandates as of Feb. 28, while the Wellfleet School Committee was the only one of the five to delay the start of a mask-optional policy until Monday, March 14.
Though each committee has some control over masking for its own students and staffs, there is a districtwide policy that affirms central-office control should cases of Covid-19 spike. It states that Supt. Brooke Clenchy, in consultation with the school nurse and local health agent, has the power to reinstate a mask mandate in any school building.
The joint meeting of the committees — scheduled following Gov. Charlie Baker’s announcement that he was lifting the statewide school mask mandate as of Feb. 28 — gave each individual school committee discretion to adopt the more relaxed policy when they chose to.
All six parents who spoke on Feb. 23 pleaded for “freedom of choice,” that is, lifting the mandates as soon as possible. They argued that masks were taking a toll on young children’s developing language and nonverbal communication skills and older children’s ability to socialize normally.
“Their brains have been robbed of the stimulus needed to create the neural pathways that will take them through the rest of their lives as emotional, communicative human beings,” said Kristen Ehrhart, the mother of a sixth-grader at Nauset Middle School. She created a petition on Change.org on Feb. 10 titled “Unmask Our Kids.” As of Feb. 28, 165 people had signed it.
But some school committee members were reluctant to lift the mandate as of Feb. 28, the first day back from February vacation.
Judith Schumacher, the regional school committee vice chair, was among those who favored waiting at least a week after the return from vacation.
“We all want personal choice,” Schumacher said. “Your personal choice when it comes to public health is not absolute. You’re not going to get on a plane and tell TSA you ‘personally choose’ not to go through screening. It seems to me that we’re just ignoring every data set that we’ve seen. We know that there are spikes after vacations.”
Before the vote on the new policy, Schumacher also expressed concern about “relinquishing authority to the superintendent.”
After the vote, Justin Ruffner, a resident of Orleans, told the Independent he objected to waiting until March 7. He said parents should have the final say over whether their kids wear masks or not.
“Committee members did not vote according to what their constituents want,” Ruffner said. He cited a recent survey in which almost three-quarters of respondents favored the district going mask-optional on Feb. 28. “It’s not their job to opine,” he said. “It’s their job to represent the people who elected them.”
He also criticized the staggered dates for implementing the new policy because his two children at Orleans Elementary School could go without masks as of Feb. 28 while his middle-schooler would have to wait until March 7.
Almost all other Cape Cod public schools — including the Barnstable, Falmouth, Sandwich, Dennis-Yarmouth, Upper Cape Cod Technical, Cape Cod Technical, and Monomoy districts — were reported to have rescinded their mask mandates as of Feb. 28. The Provincetown Schools postponed a decision on masks to the school committee’s next meeting on March 16. This will allow a two-week period following the February break to see if case numbers spike.
Across the state, most Massachusetts school districts dropped mask mandates on Feb. 28, according to the Boston Globe. The Wareham Public Schools, however, are waiting until March 14.
Nauset’s new policy states that “students and staff returning from a five-day quarantine or isolation period must follow face covering use and conduct active monitoring for symptoms through day 10 of exposure (except when eating, drinking, or outdoors).”
By federal public health order, masks are still required on school transportation and in school health offices.
The new mask policy is not tied to any vaccination requirement. According to Eastham Health Agent Jane Crowley, 84 percent of Nauset High School students but only 73 percent of that school’s staff have been vaccinated. Meanwhile, 45 percent of Eastham Elementary School students and 98 percent of the elementary school staff are vaccinated.
Health agents in Provincetown, Truro, and Wellfleet did not return calls asking for a similar breakdown of the vaccination status at their towns’ schools.