School officials in Westfield and Southwick say they are reviewing the state’s new guidance on COVID-19 masking and vaccination for the 2021-22 school year.
On July 30, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education issued updated guidance on COVID-19 prevention for students returning to school in the fall, based on statements issued by the Centers for Disease Control. The CDC guidance supports the use of vaccines as the primary mitigation measure in schools, and also continues to recommend masking in K-12 schools, but does not mandate either.
The July 30 memo does state that all districts and schools will be required to be in-person full-time five days a week this fall.
In a July 30 communication to parents about the new guidance, Southwick-Tolland-Granville School Superintendent Jennifer C. Willard said the district is actively reviewing the new recommendations and working to identify the impacts for the school community.
“We will be in touch in the coming days and weeks as reopening plans are finalized and will continue to keep you informed as new guidance from the state is released,” Willard wrote.
Westfield School Superintendent Stefan Czaporowski also said the district would review the guidance with the School Committee and Public Health Director Joseph Rouse to determine their next steps.
In the updated guidance, DESE, speaking in concert with the Department of Public Health, “strongly recommends” that all students in kindergarten through grade 6 wear masks indoors, except students who cannot for medical conditions or behavior needs. Masks are not necessary outdoors, and may be removed when eating indoors.
DESE also “strongly recommends” that unvaccinated staff and unvaccinated students in grades 7 and above, and unvaccinated visitors, wear masks indoors.
DESE “recommends” that schools allow vaccinated students to remain unmasked. Any individuals at higher risk for severe disease from COVID, or with a household member at high risk, are encouraged to mask. Any child who prefers to mask at school should be supported in this choice, DESE said.
All students and staff are “required” to wear masks on school buses, and in school health offices.
Districts and schools are “highly encouraged” to maintain or establish a robust plan for COVID-19 testing in schools, including both diagnostic testing and screening (pooled) testing for students and staff. DESE and the state Executive Office of Health and Human Services will continue to offer these services at no cost to districts.
DESE also “urges” all schools, and in particular those with vaccination rates below the Massachusetts state average, to host an on-site vaccination clinic during summer orientation events, or when classes begin. A DPH-approved mobile vaccination provider, including clinic staff and vaccination administrators, will be provided free of charge.
According to state reporting issued on July 30, Hampden County has the lowest vaccination rates of any county in Massachusetts, at 50 percent of people who are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. Southwick matches the Hampden County number with 50 percent of its population fully vaccinated, while Westfield has a slightly lower rate of 49 percent fully vaccinated. Massachusetts as a whole is at 64 percent fully vaccinated.
Westfield High School and Westfield Technical Academy did host onsite vaccination clinics in May and June, at which approximately 75 people received vaccination shots. Czaporowski said the district would certainly consider hosting another clinic, and he will run the idea by the School Committee to see if it’s something they want to do. He said new neighborhood clinics are also being offered in Westfield.
“There are plenty of opportunities for people to get vaccinated if they want to,” he said.
As for the new guidance from DESE, Czaporowski said by recommending rather than requiring the new guidelines, the state is putting the onus on local districts.
“By making it a local decision, I think it is making it more difficult for local school districts. On top of starting school, focusing on social-emotional learning plus academics, now school districts have to address masking, quarantining and contact tracing with very little assistance from the state,” Czaporowski said, adding that last year’s mandates at least took that piece “off our plate.”
Czaporowski said that masking is a very polarizing issue across the country. He has already gotten calls from parents who think everybody should wear masks, as well as from those who believe the vaccine is poisonous and don’t want their children wearing masks.
“There’s no way to make everybody happy,” he said.
Further complicating the matter is that the teachers unions in the state want to see masking for everyone in the schools regardless of the community’s status in terms of vaccination rates, Czaporowski said. “Now this is something school districts will have to take on themselves before school starts,” he added.
Peter Currier contributed to this story.