By SCOTT JACKSON
Masks will continue to be required for Quincy Public Schools students and staff at the start of the new academic year next month.
The School Committee held a special meeting on Wednesday to review its policy on communicable diseases, including face coverings, ahead of the 2021-22 school year. The committee left in place its existing rules – first enacted prior to the 2020-21 school year – that mandate masks for all individuals in school buildings, on school grounds, and on school transportation, even when social distancing is observed, without taking a vote on the matter.
The state Department of Public Health and Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in July issued updated mask guidance for the new school year, but Gov. Charlie Baker said local districts would be able to set their own policies. The state guidance recommends but does not require unvaccinated students and staff wear masks indoors while saying vaccinated students can go without them.
During Wednesday’s committee meeting, Supt. Kevin Mulvey said that while the state is giving districts the choice whether or not to mandate masks, additional guidance released by the state on Aug. 13 related to testing and quarantining of close contacts would be difficult to follow without a mask requirement in place.
“We received this latest guidance on Friday which essentially makes it very difficult for a district like Quincy or any other district to do anything else, in my opinion, other than mask and require masking,” Mulvey said.
“Logistically, it will be an absolute nightmare for us if we are quarantining potentially whole classrooms and students potentially on a consistent level…we could have a student or students quarantined several times within the year and it could last, depending on whether they want to get tested or not, anywhere between seven and ten days.”
In addition, only 500 of the 4,400 Quincy students currently eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine – which the federal government has authorized for anyone ages 12 and up – have gotten the vaccine, Mulvey said. Rita Bailey, the district’s health services coordinator, said that number is based on a state database the district has access to, and could be higher if pediatricians administered shots and did not enter them into the database.
The superintendent also noted about half of all students remained remote during the previous school year, while all students will be back in the classroom in the new school year.
“We are going to have all of our students back in the schools,” he said. “That full 4,400 students will be back in the schools, and only 500 are vaccinated.”
Bailey said she agreed that masks should be required at the start of the new school year because it will help keep students in the classroom.
“Because of the guidance we received from the Department of Public Health and DESE, the only way to keep students in school and prevent an interruption in learning, I think, is masks should be worn – at least at the start of the school year,” she stated.
“Now that distancing has been removed, I think we should see how that goes first, before we remove any other strategies. I think we mask now, and we evaluate.”
Quincy Health Commissioner Marli Caslli said he also agreed with keeping the mask mandate in place. Caslli said he had contacted more than 30 other local health departments. Of those departments he heard back from, 17 supported a mask mandate and nine others were leaning toward one.
“Every town and city is leaning toward a mask mandate and I feel very comfortable supporting Superintendent Mulvey with a mask mandate,” he said.
Caslli also noted COVID-19 cases in the city have increased since the start of the summer. There were fewer than 20 cases during the month of June, he said, compared to more than 190 cases during the first 18 days in August. Cases among children have also increased, from two in June to 27 this month.
“We are seeing an increase in cases in the city, not only for adults but even for kids,” he said.
Mayor Thomas Koch, the chairperson of the School Committee, said he had been leaning towards making masks optional but would support keeping the requirement to wear masks in place in light of the state testing and quarantine guidelines and the number of cases the city has seen in recent weeks.
“The most important thing to me is to get the kids back in the buildings, back in in-person learning. Based on those guidance…from DESE, it would be a logistical nightmare for our school system to deal with that,” Koch said. “We put enough burden on our administrators, principals, teachers and staff without that additional burden.”
The mayor added that he has no plans to impose a citywide mask mandate.
Committee member Paul Bregoli questioned the mask mandate. He said the World Health Organization does not recommend that children under the age of 5 wear masks and recommends minimizing the amount of time children between ages 6 and 11 wear masks.
Bregoli said the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – which earlier this month recommended all students ages 2 and up wear masks in school – “is no longer a legitimate source of information because it has become politicized.”
The committee had solicited written comments from the community prior to Wednesday’s meeting. Committee member Emily Lebo said 103 people signed letters in support of a mask mandate while 17 people signed letters in opposition to a mask mandate.
Letters submitted to the committee are typically read at the start of each meeting, but Koch asked the reading of those letters be waived Wednesday because it could take three to four hours to go through them all. The committee approved waiving the reading of the letters in a 5-2 vote, with Doug Gutro and Courtney Perdios voting in favor of having each letter read aloud.
Erin Perkins, the district’s assistant superintendent, provided the committee with a presentation on the state testing and quarantine guidelines for close contacts at the outset of the meeting.
The state defines a close contact as individuals who have been within six feet of a COVID-19 positive person while indoors for at least 15 minutes during a 24-hour period; the at-risk exposure time begins 48 hours prior to symptom onset (or time of positive test if asymptomatic) and continues until the time the COVID-19 positive individual is isolated.
Four categories of close contacts are exempt from testing and quarantine protocols, Perkins said. They include asymptomatic, fully vaccinated close contacts; close contacts who have had COVID-19 in the past 90 days; and close contracts on buses, because masks are required on buses and they will operate with all windows open.
The fourth category of close contacts exempt from the testing and quarantine requirements are individuals who are exposed to a COVID-19 positive person in the classroom while both individuals were wearing a mask and were able to stay at least three feet apart.
The state has three different protocols students can follow if they are a close contact and they are not in one of the four exempt groups.
The state is allowing close contacts to “test and stay” meaning they can remain in school and do not have to quarantine as long as they are asymptomatic, masked, and take a rapid antigen test each school day for at least five days and receive a negative result each time.
Close contacts who do not participate in the test and stay program can return to school eight days after their exposure provided they are asymptomatic and receive a negative test result on day of five or later.
Close contacts who do not take any tests must quarantine for ten days following their exposure.