Less than 24 hours after Merrimack school officials voted that facemasks would be optional during the upcoming school year for students and staff, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided guidelines Tuesday recommending universal indoor masking.
“Particularly on the masking issue, we have to be flexible,” Lori Peters, school board member, said during Monday’s discussion.
The district’s new interim chief education officer, Bill Olsen, agreed that decisions being made now on how to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 could change before the schools open this fall.
On Monday, the school board voted 4-0 to adopt recommendations made in a new report by the district’s Health and Safety Task Force. Within that report was a recommendation for optional mask usage among students and staff, which was also supported by Olsen; masks would still be mandatory on school buses.
However, Olsen stressed on Monday that there is one caveat to the optional mask wearing, and that would be if the CDC or the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services made any changes to their guidelines or mandates for masking.
That change was made Tuesday when the director of the CDC, Rochelle Walensky, announced new guidelines recommending that all people in schools with grades K-12 should wear masks — even if they are fully vaccinated.
“CDC recommends localities encourage universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students and visitors to schools, regardless of vaccination status,” the CDC wrote in a summary of the new guidance. “Children should return to full-time, in-person learning in the fall with proper prevention strategies …”
Olsen could not be reached for comment Tuesday. He acknowledged on Monday that face mask use has been very important for the past 18 months, saying that incidents of COVID-19 in schools have been low.
Still, with the emergence of the delta variant, he said the mask topic is once again in the spotlight and is probably the most controversial and most divisive matter to consider.
In debating whether to support optional or mandatory mask usage, Olsen emphasized that it would be impossible to please everyone, stressing that school officials should be guided by local data and metrics.
“Here is where a community effort comes into play,” he said, adding vaccinations are important to mitigate the risks.
The district’s Health and Safety Task Force report, which recommended optional masks for the fall, was supported by nearly 80% of the district’s staff and about 73% of parents, according to a recent survey.
However, there were about 156 parents who provided additional comments in the survey indicating that they favored mask usage, and about 198 parents who stated that they support optional mask usage.
The district needs to be flexible on the mask issue, according to Peters, who said there may be times when they are necessary and there may be times when they aren’t. There will be uncertainty throughout the school year, she said, explaining a one-size-fits-all mask policy would not be ideal since the COVID-19 situation is so fluid.
There are still many parents with children who are under the age of 12 that cannot yet be vaccinated who are concerned about the safety of the schools and whether universal masks will be in place, said Shannon Barnes, school board member, adding school officials have received many emails on this matter.
As a top priority, the school district must begin to communicate with parents the importance of keeping their children home if they are not feeling well, said Jenna Hardy, board member.
Parents cannot make a judgment call on whether their child has COVID-19 or not, she said, stressing children should remain home if they are sick — at least until they are feeling better or have a negative COVID-19 test result.