WOBURN - Explaining similar public health considerations factored into a decision to end in-school learning days at lunchtime, the School Committee last night instituted a districtwide mask mandate that extends to kindergarteners and first graders.
During a Thursday night gathering in the Joyce Middle School conference room, the elected officials in a 4-to-1 vote rescinded a previous hybrid reopening plan feature that would have exempted the district's youngest pupils from mandatory facial covering protocols.
School Committee member Patricia Chisholm, particularly concerned about creating a situation where six-and-seven year-olds are being punished for rules they're unlikely to understand, was the lone dissenter in last night's vote.
"We've been telling parents that for kindergarteners and first graders, we wouldn't' do this…It hasn't been being pushed at home and all of a sudden we're making a kid put something on his face," said Chisholm, who contended it's unfair to put such a burden on parents just weeks before schools reopen.
According to Assistant Superintendent Dr. Michael Baldassarre, though the Mass. Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) is permitting school districts to waive face covering mandates for younger children, local teachers have consistently demanded that Woburn adopt more stringent requirements.
Baldassarre, pointing out that the state's mask mandate requires all people over two-years-old to wear a mask when venturing out to stores and other public spaces, told the School Committee that he generally agreed with that position.
"We felt strongly, after speaking with the Woburn Teachers Association (WTA), that all of our students should be wearing face coverings. We understand that for children who are young, there will an educational aspect to [promoting this practice]," said the assistant superintendent.
"Part of this policy is about sending the message of our faculty and staff [that we're going to protect their health]. Teachers might be in a position where they're uncomfortable and feel unsafe in their work environment," Baldassarre later said.
Most School Committee members backed the policy update given what's known about the spread of COVID-19.
Though the disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus has long been suspected of being aerosolized, which means the pathogen can float over long distances and be breathed through common cloth and fabric face coverings, many medical researchers contend masks restrict the volume and distance over which such particles will initially travel when emitted by an infected party.
Under the theory, even if someone is sick and spreading the disease, those who contract COVID—19 will do so after inhaling air with a lower viral load or inoculum. As a result, such individuals are suspected of having a much better chance of fighting back the infection, as it takes longer for the virus to propogate and cause serious health outcomes.
"Is this strict and hard core? It certainly is," conceded School Committee member Michael Mulrenan, who acknowledged younger children will have difficulty complying with the rules at first. "But we're in a worldwide health crisis, and right now, this is how we'll deal with it."
"It's well founded," School Commmitee member Dr. John Wells later remarked. "[Wearing a mask] seems to be the best protection against getting an infection."
According to Chisholm, though she agrees even Woburn's youngest children will eventually adapt to the mask mandate, she couldn't vote in favor of a policy that lists removal from the classroom setting as a potential penalty for non-compliance.
Specifically, under the overall mask policy, building principals will be authorized to order repeat offenders into Woburn's remote by-choice or "Virtual Academy", where students will receive all instruction at-home through Internet-based programming and video-conferencing tools.
Though Baldassarre insisted principals would only take such extreme measures as a last resort after trying various other educational and behavioral modification incentives, Chisholm argued parents should have been given more time to practice mask-wearing at home.
"We'll say you didn't comply and you have to go to remote. I just don't think we can punish young kids for that. I don't think I can approve something like that," said Chisholm.
"We understand there's an educational aspect to this. I don't think any principal will eject someone from a learning environment for something they don't understand," reassured the assistant superintended.
Normally, the School Committee waits at least 30-days before approving a new policy, so the general public has an opportunity to provide feedback on the proposed guidance.
However, School Committee Chair Ellen Crowley advocated for taking an immediate vote on the proposed mask policy, as parents should be able to take the protocols under consideration when deciding whether to send their children back to the classroom part-time next month.
By next Monday — the end of the work day on Aug. 31 — all parents must decide whether to enroll their children in the hybrid plan or the alternative virtual academy.
As of early Friday morning — a mere few hours after the School Committee decision — the full text of the new mask policy had not been posted to the Woburn Public Schools website.
Those who choose to go with the virtual academy are cautioned that children will have to remain in the program for a minimum of one semester or trimester — meaning pupils cannot shift back into a hybrid setting until the onset of the winter months.
That waiting period will end on Dec. 14 at the elementary school level and Feb. 2 for middle and high school pupils.
Those looking to access the school reopening plan and the required school model selection survey should logon to www.woburnpublicschools.com and clicking on the link to the "district coronavirus information page" under the news and announcements section.
Links to the survey that parents are being asked to compete by next Monday, can be found under the heading, "August 25 - Superintendent's Update".