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Brad Morgan.
Brad Morgan.

TOWNSEND — Just four days before North Middlesex Regional School District students returned to classes for the new school year, the School Committee voted unanimously to adopt a universal mask mandate for all K-12 students.

The vote, amid protest, was made on on Thursday, Aug. 26. Students returned to school Monday.

The policy adopted by the committee comes requires mask wearing for all K-12 students, regardless of vaccination status. The policy leaves exemptions for students with medical and behavioral needs, as well as for those with religious beliefs. It will remain in effect until otherwise altered or repealed by the School Committee.

The vote by North Middlesex Regional School District followed Tuesday’s announcement by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education mandating statewide mask-wearing inside all public schools through Oct. 1.

A vocal group of opponents protested the School Committee’s looming decision, prompting them to start their meeting nearly 45 minutes after its originally scheduled start time of 7 p.m.

When the committee reconvened, Chair Craig Hansen tried to have the committee work their way through the evening’s agenda items expeditiously.

Within the span of about five minutes, the School Committee approved updates to the 2021-2022 strategic plan, handbooks for elementary, middle and high school; and modifications to the student discipline policy.

When the School Committee reached the mask mandate proposal, member Randee Rusch attempted to explain the rationale of the School Committee’s policy subcommittee.

Rusch said the committee had reviewed over 50 comments, both supporting and opposing the mandate. However, the committee saw it as the benefits of mask-wearing outweighed any disadvantages.

“Our goal was to have students in person, in front of teachers, to learn this school year. A surge in COVID cases in the school would force students to stay home, unable to learn in person and would cause teachers to have to stay home unable to teach students in person. No one wants to go back to remote or hybrid learning if we can prevent it.”

Rusch noted the subcommittee had voted to bring the policy forward before Tuesday’s announcement of a statewide mandate.

“This is a safety measure that our school committee, faculty and staff support, and which we will adhere to fully,” Superintendent Brad Morgan said in a statement released on the first day of school.

Students who arrive to school without a mask will be provided one, Morgan said in the statement.

After Oct. 1, the policy will allow middle and high schools to lift the mask mandate for vaccinated students and staff only if the school meets a certain vaccination rate – at least 80 percent of students and staff in a school building are vaccinated. Unvaccinated students and staff would still be required to wear masks. As the district nears this date further information will be shared, Morgan said.

Community members should also note that under the state DPH’s mask advisory, masks are mandatory for all individuals, regardless of vaccination status, while using public transportation and rideshares, and while inside healthcare facilities and other settings. As a result, students riding any district bus or visiting any of the district’s health offices must continue to wear masks at all times while in these settings.

Families and staff are reminded that any individual who is showing any COVID-19-related symptoms prior to the start of the school day must stay home and contact their healthcare provider about testing. Those who may have been exposed to the disease are asked to remain home as well, monitor themselves for symptoms and to contact their healthcare provider about testing options.

The Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics have both recommended students, staff,  teachers and visitors wear masks inside K-12 schools to start this school year so long as no medical or behavioral needs prevent them from doing so.

Following the mask vote, the School Committee meeting adjourned. In total, the meeting lasted about eight minutes.

The North Middlesex Regional School District serves the towns of Ashby, Pepperell, and Townsend.

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