Potential unmasking of the regional

Signs+reminding+students+to+mask+up+remain+a+common+sight+in+the+Regional.+

Madison Butler, Birima Tanona

Signs reminding students to mask up remain a common sight in the Regional.

On Friday, November 1st, 2021, the State Department of Education is scheduled to revise its mask policies, allowing school districts to decide on their own mask mandates. These mandates would be based on their vaccination rates – If 80% or more of HWRHS students and faculty are fully vaccinated, the current mask mandate may be revised to not require face coverings for those who are fully vaccinated. 

According to the Hamilton-Wenham Regional High School Nurse Lea Tabenkin, 81.45% of the student body and faculty are currently vaccinated. Despite the fact that we have surpassed the threshold of 80%, many are still concerned about the rising COVID-19 case numbers, the presence of variants, and other unpredictable factors associated with the pandemic. 

Regarding this decision at Hamilton Wenham Regional High School, once the state revises the policies to be individual to each school system, the decision will fall in the hands of the school committee, as it was before the Department of Education created a state-wide mandate.

Students wear their masks during class to protect themselves and others from Covid-19, per the mask mandate. (Madison Butler)

Current superintendent and former principal of Hamilton Wenham Regional High School, Eric Tracy, explained the role of those on the school committee: “When they are elected by the community to be on the school committee, they have that authority to make those policy decisions – it’s one of those things that’s a big part of their job, making and passing policies.”

“The mask mandate was originally coming from the School Committee, but then the State Department of Education stepped in and they ordered across the state saying that October 1st, given 80% or more vaccination rate, this could happen, so we’re waiting to see if they adjust that based on the rising numbers,” says superintendent Tracy. 

Tracy was correct in his waiting, as the State Department of Education made a decision on September 27th to extend the revision from October 1st to November 1st at the earliest. 

DESE Education Commissioner, Jeffrey Riley, announced this decision to the press on September 27th: “The best interest of students and staff as they return safely to full-time, in-person instruction this fall is at the forefront of my decision. Wearing masks is an important additional measure to keep students in school safely at this time. As health conditions evolve, we will continue to work with medical experts to find masking offramps for our youngest students who are not yet eligible for vaccines.” 

With the date extended, the State Department of Education continues to determine the mask mandates in school systems state-wide. If the date is not pushed back any longer, the decision will be back in the hands of the school committee after November 1. 

“I think the state will play into that decision because right now they hold all the cards.” Tracy says about the process of removing masks, “we always communicate with our two boards of health and the school level nurses to find out what kind of cases are happening, what does pool testing look like? What are the things that are impacting our schools right now?” 

Tracking the number of cases in the community as well as the number of vaccinated individuals in the Regional is key in keeping the school community safe. 

The important thing now is just keeping everyone in school, keeping everyone as healthy as possible.”

— Gwen McDonald

Gwen McDonald, one of the current nurses at HWRHS, has an important involvement within the school community, especially given the circumstances of COVID-19.

When asked about the mask mandate at the Regional, McDonald explains, “I think it’s really complicated to decide who is vaccinated and who can have their mask off and how we can enforce that in any way… It (Delta variant) is more transmissible, so I think it is important to continue wearing masks.” 

While wearing masks has become a controversial topic, the science is behind McDonald’s claim. Through a study at Health Affairs, scientists estimated that the mask mandates had prevented 230,000–450,000 COVID cases by May 22, 2020. 

Despite the controversy and different beliefs of those surrounding the pandemic, McDonald says that “the important thing now is just keeping everyone in school, keeping everyone healthy as possible.”

Besides the medical advice and consideration, the other factor that plays into the mask mandate is the faculty and student’s comfort levels.

Superintendent Tracy recognizes the challenges of mask wearing, saying, “It will always cause some level of discomfort, whether masks are on or off because there are definitely people who think we shouldn’t wear masks at all, and then there are other people who think we should be wearing masks to protect each other. You’re always gonna have that tension.”

There have also been growing concerns about potential targeting of students who are not vaccinated, as they will be required to continue wearing masks. This could also be a violation of health privacy, as it would make it clear to the public who is vaccinated, which is normally private information.

Tracy says that “it is incumbent that on all of us to work together to be sure things like this don’t happen in our schools.”

When revising the mask mandates at the Regional, the school committee and administration take the concerns of the community very seriously.

Numerous factors play into the complex decision of whether or not facial coverings should be required upon entering school doors. The unmasking of the Regional is inevitable, but the date of November 1st may not be feasible.