MIDDLESEX - It’s the controversial policy that many communities continue to wrestle with: To mask or not to mask.

With the start of the 2021-2022 academic year just weeks away, parents in many Middlesex East communities still don’t know whether their children will return to the classroom under mandatory districtwide masking mandates.

So far this summer, just two towns in the immediate region, Stoneham and Burlington, have rendered formal decisions regarding official masking policies for the coming school year.

Acting just days after the Mass. Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) made clear that they will leave facial covering decisions up to individual school districts, Burlington Superintendent Dr. Eric Conti announced that the town will instruct all students and staff members to mask-up for the first day of school on Sept. 7.

Acknowledging his masking-for-all approach exceeds DESE’s latest July 30 advisory, which “recommends” against subjecting vaccinated students and staff members to mask mandates, Conti in a recent letter to Burlington parents explained that with COVID-19 cases again on the rise across the state, he is erring on the side of extreme caution.

“We know that there will be different approaches to health and safety in area public school districts, but in Burlington Public Schools, we will return to indoor mask-wearing,” Conti wrote.

“While we are well aware of the frustration many are feeling due to the COVID-19 rules and restrictions, we are committed to moving forward with guidelines that will allow us to keep staff and students as safe as possible while also educating our students in person without interruption,” he continued. “We know that many would like to lose the masks and return to normal as quickly as possible, but unfortunately, this is going to take more time.”

Days before Burlington reimposed a districtwide mask mandate, Stoneham’s School Committee went in an entirely different direction by voting to rescind its own facial covering order.

During a meeting in late July, the elected Stoneham officials, adopting the recommendation of Schools’ Superintendent John Macero, scrapped the district’s nearly year-old masking policy. Mirroring DESE recommendations, which though since updated have not materially changed, Stoneham’s new unofficial masking stance “strongly recommends” but doesn’t require unvaccinated students and staff members to don facial coverings while in the classroom.

However, at various points during Stoneham’s debate over revising the district’s masking rules, School Committee members cautioned parents and staff that the superintendent is authorized to reimpose emergency facial covering orders.

“Just so we’re clear, right now, based on what we know, masks will not be mandated [come the start of school in September]. But we cannot project what the state is going to say or what will happen before then,” stressed School Committee Chair Jaimie Wallace.

“I’m comfortable with rescinding the policy and leaving it up to the superintendent to impose masking as required. I think there will be a very hesitant and careful start to the year…I would be very surprised if there wasn’t a time where we require masking in the schools,” senior Stoneham School Committee member David Maurer also said of rescinding the districtwide masking order.

Under a decision made in mid-June, Woburn’s School Committee has similarly retracted a citywide masking order that was instituted before the start of school last year.

However, the district’s suspension of the masking order is only effective until Sept. 1, meaning city officials will need to revisit the issue before classes begin anew this fall. That tentative vote is presently set to occur during a School Committee meeting next week.

Conflicting state and federal advisories

Woburn’s school board like Stoneham reversed its masking order based upon an early summer clarification of DESE’s COVID-19 safety protocols by State Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley.

Specifically, last May, after Mass. Governor Charles Baker announced he would be retracting a state-of-emergency declared at the start of the pandemic, DESE officials indicated their stance on facial covering mandates within indoor spaces would remain unchanged.

However, in mid-June, Riley, in a memo clarifying that position, advised superintendents that DESE was bringing its guidelines in-line with the policy of the Mass. Department of Public Health (DPH) in stipulating that masks are no longer mandatory for vaccinated individuals.

Per the revised DESE guidelines, unvaccinated populations, including all children under the age of 12, should continue wearing facial coverings. However, Riley also made clear that DESE, like DPH, is not mandating that masks be worn by those who haven’t gotten the COVID-19 immunizations.

Since Woburn and Stoneham revised their masking guidelines, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in late July reversed its position on masking in schools in light of a concerning rise in the number of COVID-19 “Delta variant” cases across the nation.

Specifically, during a nationally-televised press conference on July 27, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky explained the federal agency was now recommending universal masking for all students and staff members in schools regardless of vaccination status. The CDC is also recommending that all students and staff members reintroduce minimum social distancing spaces of at least three-feet within classroom environments.

Three days later, in a memo largely issued in response to those new CDC standards, Riley affirmed that DESE would not mandate either masking or minimum social distancing thresholds within Massachusetts’ classrooms for the start of the 2021-2022 school year.

According to state officials, with COVID-19 posing a statistically low public health threat to children and teens and Massachusetts already enjoying one of the country’s highest vaccination rates, they see little reason to reintroduce draconian pandemic-prevention measures in local schools.

The lone exceptions to that standard will apply to those riding school buses, where masks must be worn per federal mandates, and for all who are frequenting school nurse offices.

“Massachusetts has among the highest vaccination rates of any state in the nation, and evidence continues to reinforce that the COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective, especially against severe disease,” reasoned Riley in his July 30 memo to school superintendents.

“At the same time, even for those students not yet vaccinated, the apparent risk of COVID-19 to children remains small. These factors continue to reinforce that many previously instituted COVID-19 mitigation measures in school settings are no longer necessary,” the education commissioner continued.

According to state authorities, local school districts are still free to impose stricter masking or public health protocols. Regardless of a school district’s facial covering policy, parents also reserve the right to require their children to wear masks while in school.

In Woburn, where earlier this summer a narrow majority of School Committee members agreed to rescind the district’s masking mandate, a reintroduction of facial covering standards could very well be forthcoming.

Specifically, last summer, the School Committee voted 4-to-3 in favor or temporary lifting the district’s mask mandate until Sept. 1. However, at least one board member who voted in favor of loosening the masking rules for summer school sessions suggested her stance was likely to change come this fall.

“The summer program is an enrichment program [where participation is voluntary], but if we’re talking about mandatory public education, we might feel a little differently about masks,” Woburn School Committee Chair Ellen Crowley explained during a meeting in June.

The masking positions of School Committee members in several other area communities also up in the air.

Last week, after DESE issued its latest COVID-19 advisories, Reading Schools’ Superintendent Dr. Thomas Milaschewski invited the general public to give feedback about the district’s masking mandate.

According to Milaschewski, while central office administrators are reviewing Riley’s July 30 memo with teachers and building principals, the School Committee is getting ready to debate the district’s COVID-19 protocols during a pair of meetings that will be scheduled later this month.

“We embrace the importance of listening to our community and we will reach out again next week to offer communication channels for sharing your thoughts and concerns with the leadership team,” the superintendent and other central office administrators explained in an open letter to parents last week.

“We recognize that there is much uncertainty around this fall and know that this is difficult for students, staff, and families. We look forward to working through this uncertainty with collaboration and

are committed to keeping the community involved and informed as we move forward,” Milaschewski added.

Likewise, school officials in Wilmington and Tewksbury have not yet rendered a decision on districtwide masking policies.

Last week, after Tewksbury Public Schools recorded its first COVID-19 case since last May, Superintendent Chris Malone notified the public that town officials were still digesting the latest DESE and CDC masking advisories.

Meanwhile, the School Committee in Wilmington, which met just before DESE reissued its masking guidelines on July 30, has also yet to address the town’s position regarding facial coverings.

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