WESTFIELD — For months, ever since the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education mandated wearing masks in school, a small group of parents have been attending School Committee meetings to continue to address their concerns about their children wearing masks in school and while playing sports.
Public participation during the meeting of Dec. 6 was no different. Jessica Breton of Casimir Street said that one of her sons had been identified as a close contact of a student who tested positive for COVID-19. When she arrived at the school, she was told that if students are three feet apart at a table without masks, and one tests positive, they’re close contacts. If they were wearing masks, they would not be considered close contacts.
Breton said she asked whether her other son could still go to school, and was told he could, which she called “ridiculous.” She said the options were to participate in Test and Stay, where her son who had been the close contact could be tested daily and could stay in school if negative, or keep him home until Dec. 13. She said she asked if she could do the test herself, which she does at work, and was told she could not, according to DESE guidelines.
“Parents are getting taken out of the equation here, and our rights are being stripped away, slowly but surely,” Breton said on Dec. 6, adding that she would not let anyone else test her child. “DESE needs to get out of the healthcare business or find somebody who will,” she said, adding, “I, the taxpayer, fund DESE … and I have no say in my children’s education and health care now.”
Gabriella Michaliszyn of Sackett Road read two letters from her foster sons, both of whom play basketball and have difficulty wearing the masks while playing.
Her son on the junior varsity team said he has asthma, and finds it hard to breathe when he plays basketball, even without a mask. He said they have to wear the masks over their noses even on the bench, as well as in class during the day, and was yelled at while taking it off to use his inhaler.
“I just want you to be aware of how difficult it is right now,” he said in the letter.
Her other son, on the varsity basketball team, said they only get mask breaks during English class, and need more breaks during school. He said in basketball, they have to play three hours with a mask, and it’s hard to breathe. To spend all day with a mask, then practice after school with a mask is not easy, he said.
Another speaker, Katrina Ripka, said that children at Westfield public schools have been required to wear a mask for almost two years. She questioned how healthy it is to continually breathe in exhaled air.
“Wearing a mask is not and never will be normal,” Ripka said, adding, “Just as you have the power to put the mask mandate in place, you have the power to reverse it.”
However, neither the school administrators nor the School Committee can reverse the mask mandate without losing state funding, unless the district achieves a vaccination rate of over 80 percent, according to Superintendent Stefan Czaporowski. He said the city’s vaccination rate is at 55 percent, but the rate for the 18-and-under population is at least 10 to 12 points below that.
“That’s not an option,” he said.
Czaporowski said the nurses are also doing the best they can with contact tracing. While the state Department of Health and local Board of Health are no longer doing contact tracing, DESE still requires it, and it has fallen entirely on the school nurses. He said they are doing a great job, but are having difficulty keeping up.
As for sports, WPS Athletic Director Ryan Dunphy said the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association is following DESE’s requirements.
“The MIAA is just deferring to the DESE policy on this. If masks are required for schools, they will be required for athletics. It doesn’t look like this will be changing anytime soon,” he said.
Czaporowski said after hearing Michaliszyn’s concerns at the School Committee meeting, the district will contact the MIAA to see whether there are any exceptions to wearing masks while playing or practicing sports. He also said that parents with specific concerns don’t have to wait until a School Committee meeting to have their voices heard, but they can call the child’s school, or principal, or the superintendent directly.
Czaporowski said when DESE Commissioner Jeffrey C. Riley extended the mask mandate until Jan. 15, he hoped it would get the schools through the holiday bump of positive cases, which they are experiencing now.