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Masks no longer required in Massachusetts schools, but not all are ready to make them optional

In this file photo, Jarett Greene teaches a graphic design class at Greenfield High School.
Paul Franz
Greenfield Recorder / recorder.com
In this file photo, Jarett Greene teaches a graphic design class at Greenfield High School.

Starting Monday, after months of mask wearing, the faces of some Massachusetts public school students and staff will be fully visible in class. The state announced in early February it would lift the mask mandate effective February 28th.

Some districts will delay to move to optional mask-wearing. Others, like the sprawling and largely rural Hampshire Regional School District, are ready for the masks to come off.

“It’s so exciting!" the district's superintendent, Diana Bonneville, said. "Just seeing the smiles on students’ faces and their expressions is going to be really priceless."

The district serves students in the towns of Westhampton, Southampton, Chesterfield, Goshen, Worthington and Williamsburg. While masks will be optional at the high school, some of the district's elementary schools have delayed the policy shift.

The timing is right for most of their community, Bonneville said.

“It’s the highest level of comfort towards the side of 'mask optional' we've seen since last summer,” she said.

Bonneville said the rate of COVID-19 cases in the area is relatively low and 81% of the high school population, students and teachers, are vaccinated.

“[Many students] are participating in pool testing, or at-home testing,” she said.

Still, Bonneville said Hampshire Regional will take the new mask optional policy one week at a time.

“We have some anxious and worried families, and others are really relieved and grateful that masks are optional," Bonneville said. “Teachers tended to want to keep the mask mandate in place.”

The district doesn’t have any predetermined metrics to dictate if mask-wearing should become mandatory again, Bonneville said. But she plans to closely monitor the rate of local COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

'Very difficult decision'

While a majority of the state’s districts are ending mask requirements Monday, according to the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, plenty are delaying the move.

That includes Boston, Springfield and Holyoke in Hampden County, Amherst and Northampton in Hampshire County, and Greenfield in Franklin County.

Jean Wall is vice chair of the Greenfield School Committee. Since the state announced lifting the school mask mandate, she's been busy.

“We have been flooded with emails from parents who want the mask mandate lifted,” Wall said. “We’ve gotten a few from people who do not want it lifted. And in all cases we will make a segment of the population unhappy no matter what we decide to do.”

The Greenfield School Committee will begin to publicly discuss its mask policy Tuesday at its regular meeting.

Wall started her position in early 2020, just weeks before the pandemic forced school buildings to close. As a retired real estate agent, she pays attention to budgets. She never dreamed she'd be making public health decisions.

“It’s difficult when you know there's a new variant out there waiting to come,” Wall said. “This is a very difficult decision to make personally for me personally, because I think people's health is at stake.”

'Bullying is what it is'

As state governments loosen public health rules, the changes highlight a personal decision — like the choice now whether or not to wear a mask in school.

About 70 people turned out at a recent virtual Westfield School Committee meeting, where members voted to rescind the mask mandate along the state's timeline.

Parent Kristina LaFrenier spoke up at the meeting. Her daughter, who was also visible on the screen, goes to Westfield Intermediate school, which serves almost 700 fifth- and sixth-graders. LaFrenier said they’re worried about what could happen when people choose to keep their masks on.

"I'm concerned that those students who do choose to wear a mask or even staff who may choose to wear a mask will be ostracized in some way,” LaFrenier said. "We see that happening around Westfield with adults. So I just want to make sure that our teachers and our administrators are prepared to be on the lookout for that type of — bullying is what it is.”

Some Westfield School Committee members were hoping to delay rescinding the mask mandate for a few weeks, given that kids were on vacation and may have been traveling out of the area. But, in the end, the decision to make masks optional was unanimous.

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."
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