WESTFIELD — “We know you’re angry,” said Mayor Donald Humason. “Stay tuned, because whatever decision we make tonight may very well change at our next meeting in a couple weeks. And that’s going to frustrate nobody more than us.”
A few dozen attendees at Monday’s School Committee meeting may have disagreed. They sounded plenty frustrated, themselves, as the school board voted 6-0 to continue the Westfield Public Schools policy requiring all students and staff to wear face masks while indoors, to fight the spread of COVID-19 and its new, more contagious delta variant.
“As a school population, we have many children and staff members who have underlying conditions we cannot control,” said School Committee member Cindy Sullivan. “If a mask is going to help those students and staff, as much as it can, even if it’s a small percentage, then I have to, in my heart, vote for it. If it’s going to keep our schools open and keep our kids in school, then I have to vote yes.”
Though the policy remains in place for now, it could change quickly — even before the schools open on Aug. 30. School Committee member Bo Sullivan noted that the committee will meet again next Monday, Aug. 23, and could revisit the policy at that time, if public health statistics in Westfield or masking guidance from state and federal agencies change between now and then.
The policy applies to “all individuals in school buildings, on school grounds and in school transportation,” though principals can agree to exemptions based on medical reasons. School Superintendent Stefan Czaporowski said the policy does not apply to outdoor recess.
The School Committee took its vote after hearing a full half-hour of public comments on the policy. Of the roughly one-dozen members of the public who spoke, only two spoke in favor of masks in schools.
“We all want to take our masks off,” said Rebecca Kudelka, who said her son caught pneumonia from COVID-19 last year. “Nobody has an answer to fix this, but it hasn’t gone away. The kids can’t be protected by a vaccine right now. Until we see what delta does, a mandate isn’t a bad idea.”
She appealed to mask opponents to accept by the decision of the School Committee, even if they don’t agree with it, and work together as a community.
“We need to get the community together,” she said. “We can make our lives so much easier by getting along and just supporting our kids.”
Kevin Pighetti, a chiropractic doctor with four children in Westfield schools, asked the School Committee to consider the harm that masking does to children. Wearing a mask affects the development of breathing and facial structure in young children, he said. He and others also said masks hide their wearer’s facial expressions, depriving children of visual cues that help them develop language skills and emotional maturity.
“There’s a lot of effects people aren’t talking about,” he said.
Nick Sicard, 11, a rising sixth grader at Westfield Intermediate School, said he understands why un-vaccinated students want to continue wearing masks. He asked that the schools accommodate students like him, who do not wish to wear a mask, by establishing separate masked and mask-free classrooms.
“Masks create a barrier,” he said. “I am fine if I wear a mask in the hallway when changing classes, but I want to be able to talk with my friends.”
Mandating masks for children, the age group with the lowest risk of being infected with COVID-19, is an “emotional decision” with no basis in science, said John Bowen.
“There’s no scientific data to support the fact that masks work,” Bowen said. “There are, however, scientific reports that masks do harm to children, physically and emotionally.”
Another of the mask opponents noted that even though the meeting was being held indoors, the School Committee itself was not fully masked, with the mayor and one additional member not in masks, while another member was wearing a mask over his mouth only, not his nose. He said he had seen two more School Committee members unmasked immediately before the meeting began, and said they only put on their masks for the television camera.
Though the rhetoric turned heated at times, and Humason had to ask the audience not to interrupt the School Committee’s discussion more than once, board members thanked the speakers for sharing their perspectives, and encouraged them to return at future meetings, whenever the mask policy is up for debate again.
Cindy Sullivan said the anti-masking sentiment at Monday’s meeting was a useful counterpoint to a flood of emails that School Committee members had received in the past week, most of which were from parents in favor of continuing the mask mandate.
“I did get some emails from some business owners in town that were advocating for masks,” she added. “When kids are out of school, then their staff is out of work, and they can’t open.”
She said she could sympathize with the arguments on both sides of the issue. She also said the School Committee, which does not include any public health professionals, should not be forced to decide this policy.
Though the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education isn’t mandating a mask policy statewide, it has released “guidance,” as has the federal Centers for Disease Control. Both are currently recommending masks indoors for at least unvaccinated people. School Committee member Ramon Diaz Jr. said he wouldn’t want to have to answer to a court if Westfield adopted a more relaxed policy and somebody got sick.
“If we get sued and we don’t institute the guidelines that have been implemented by DESE, we’re more at risk,” Diaz said. “If we don’t follow it, we’re open for lawsuits.”
Any legal settlement would take away money from next year’s school budget, he added.
Five of the elected School Committee members were present and voted in favor of the mandate: Diaz, Bo Sullivan, Cindy Sullivan, Heather Sullivan and Timothy O’Connor. The mayor, who serves as chairman of the committee, also voted in favor.
Czaporowski said he received 5,745 responses to an online survey intended to determine how parents feel about masking in schools. Just under half of the responses, 48.5 percent, opted for a continuation of the current policy, requiring masks at all times while indoors, regardless of age or vaccination status. Those choosing to make masks optional for all students and staff constituted 38.6 percent of responses. The rest, 12.9 percent, favored a mask mandate for young students and any unvaccinated people, while vaccinated adults and vaccinated older students would be allowed to attend school without masks.
The results were closer among the 1,304 student responses, according to figures Czaporowski provided: 46.8 percent for full masking, 42.5 percent for optional masking, 10.7 percent for masking based on vaccination status.
Among staff, 39.6 percent supported a full mask mandate, 31.8 percent supported making masks optional, and 28.6 percent supported a mask mandate for unvaccinated people only. There were 916 responses by staff.
Czaporowski said he also surveyed his administrative team, of which half were in favor of continuing the mask mandate. Unlike the other survey groups, among administrators the partial mandate based on vaccination was the second most popular option, at 26.7 percent. Only 23.3 percent of administrators favored making masking entirely optional.