| Sarah Heinonen
HAMPDEN/WILBRAHAM – The Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School District (HWRSD) voted to require masks in school, at least through the end of September. The Aug. 12 vote came after testimony from medical professionals, comments from the public and a spirited debate among members of the School Committee.
Kiara Fryer, the district’s nurse leader, reported data on the district’s status in regard to the coronavirus. As of Aug. 12, Wilbraham had a positivity rate of 4.28 percent, while Hampden’s rate was slightly lower at 3.91 percent. Cases were increasing among school-aged children, she said. Fryer explained that masks will be required on school buses, as they are a form of public transportation.
In terms of vaccination, more than half of the district’s student population, 54 percent, are not eligible to be vaccinated. “The Hispanic population as a whole has a lower vaccination rate. The Black and brown population also has a lower vaccination rate,” Fryer said.
HWRSD Physician and Pediatrician Dr. Amy Kasper, addressed the committee and the communities as a whole, saying that she wanted everyone to have the most up-to-date science. She explained that the delta variant of the coronavirus is 225 percent more contagious than the original virus. Infected individuals “carry much higher viral loads” – up to 1,000 times higher – in their respiratory systems, Kasper said.
Kasper said the R0, pronounced R-naught, is the number of people who will likely contract a virus from an infected person. The original SARS-CoV-2 virus had an R0 range of 2.3 to 2.7. The delta variant’s R0 is between 5 and 10.
For this reason, Kasper recommended a universal masking mandate for the beginning of school. “I feel strongly,” she said, adding that with roughly 20 desks per classroom at 3-feet apart, “We are upping our odds [of transmission] in every way we can.”
Kasper also noted that having vaccinated students unmasked while unvaccinated students wear them will create an “us versus them” culture.
The doctor confirmed that vaccinated people can become infected with the virus, known as breakthrough infections, but she said those individuals usually do not experience as serious symptoms as unvaccinated people.
Kasper told the committee that she was not in favor of mandating vaccinations until more data becomes available and in consideration of caregiver feelings about the vaccine. But, she said, “We need to put safety first.”
Committee member Bill Bontempi asked Kasper if there were clinical trials on the efficacy of masks. She stated that while she wasn’t aware of any there was plenty of anecdotal evidence. For example, she said, while Baystate usually sees an influx of the respiratory disease RSV between December and April, the hospital saw only one case by January of this year. Since masking restrictions were lifted, RSV cases have “taken the pediatric hospital community by storm.”
Bontempi stated that since several precautions were put in place at the same time when the pandemic began, people couldn’t be sure masks were the reason more people didn’t get the virus. He put forth hand washing as a known method of protection.
Committee member Sean Kennedy made the point that masks are known to be effective in limiting the spread of germs. “My wife is a nurse, she’s in a hospital, she has to wear a mask,” he said. Bontempi responded that N95 masks are not the same as the bandanas many children wear.
Kennedy commented to Bontempi, “Your filibuster is appreciated.”
Bontempi shot back that he wasn’t filibustering, and again insisted, “We don’t have solid scientific proof.” He asked Kasper about scientific proof of mask efficacy or whether masks pose dangers.
“No one supports the idea that putting a mask over the face drops oxygen levels,” Kasper said, pushing back on the idea that masks cause hypoxia. She said, “The vast majority of clinicians who are on the front line of treatment,” agree that masks are “better than nothing.” To Bontempi’s point about hand hygiene, she said that cleaning hands doesn’t help if people sneeze or cough on one another.
Bontempi opined that masks might give people “a false sense of security,” increasing the likelihood that parents will send their sick children to school because they have to wear a mask.
Kennedy tried to call the question and end the debate, but the committee chose to continue the discussion.
Superintendent Albert Ganem assured the committee that there would be ample mask breaks, including outdoor recess, as well as outdoor lunch or instruction when possible. To Bontempi’s point, he added that hand sanitizer would be available to students and staff and frequent cleaning of common touch-points, such as door handles, would continue.
Bontempi asserted that student-to-student transmission wasn’t seen in the previous school year. Kasper reiterated that students will be twice as close with full classrooms this year. Bontempi changed topics and asked how quarantined students will learn without a remote option. Kasper informed him that vaccinated close contacts will not need to quarantine, though they will require monitoring. She added that masking won’t affect the need to quarantine.
When it was remarked that East Longmeadow Public Schools had decided not to require masks, Kennedy told Bontempi that the two districts would provide a real-world trial on mask efficacy.
School Committee member Patrick Kiernan suggested the committee limit the length of the mandate to Sept. 30 and review it as the situation develops. The committee approved that time frame.
Kasper told the committee that emergency use for coronavirus vaccines in children 5 years of age and older was expected within the first two months of school. She proposed determining a target for herd immunity as a metric to ease the mask mandate.
Residents spoke after the vote was taken.
“I am so incredibly proud of what you all have done to keep children safe,” said resident Thirza C. Lareau. “There’s nothing unsafe about a cloth,” she said referring to masks. She noted Bontempi wears a mask when operating as an oral surgeon because it keeps a sterile environment.
Resident Aaron Abdelmaseh said that he was prepared to beg for precautions for his 8-year-old son. He said that two of his three children have pre-existing conditions that would make COVID-19 particularly dangerous to them.
“I don’t look forward to using my children as experiments” in the efficacy of masks, he said looking at Bontempi. He did agree, however, that he was concerned about learning while quarantined.
Another resident echoed earlier comments about the delta variant’s high level of transmission. He explained that his uncle and several friends had died from the delta variant in India. He was “grateful” the committee had adopted the temporary mask mandate.
One resident spoke against the mask mandate, saying that “covering our children’s nose and mouths isn’t right.”
Two residents turned their comments to the equity audit. During a meeting two weeks earlier, the committee had voted to support Ganem in his search for prices and information on an audit.
Resident Jim Smith said that he had made a public records request for documents on the district’s search for an audit firm but did not receive a response within the 10 days allowed and only received the documents after a complaint to the state. “Why didn’t the district want me to have that information?” he asked, rhetorically.
Smith said that the documents show an audit costs about $80,000. He took issue with a lack of definitions for terms such as anti-racism and “equitable outcomes.” That last term, he said, “scares” him.
A second resident told the committee that when a Maryland county conducted an equity audit, “every child suffered.” He did not elaborate.
Kennedy then motioned to revisit the vote taken at the previous meeting. He stated that Robert’s Rules of Order, the framework on which public bodies often structure their meetings, allows two weeks for votes to be reconsidered. Kennedy said the language of the last vote was “confusing.”
Bontempi said he felt “very strongly” that the committee should stay out of the audit and leave it to the superintendent. It was also noted that the item was not on the agenda.
Kennedy shared that he had asked for it to be put on the agenda but Chair Michal Boudreau chose not to include it. She responded that it is on the agenda as a future item.
The committee voted to reconsider the vote at which point Kennedy proposed for Ganem to begin researching pricing for an equity audit to be done in 2022 and finished by 2023. The timeline was not included in the previous week’s vote.
Bontempi told his colleague that it was “underhanded” to propose it in such a manner, but Kennedy took umbrage since it was allowed under the rules of order.
There was no second to Kennedy’s motion and it was dropped, though it was understood that the issue would be on the next meeting’s agenda.