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Lowell School Committee member rips coronavirus safety protocol policy

Lowell School Committee Members L-R, front, Jackie Doherty, Mayor John J. Leahy, Andre P. Descoteaux, back row, Robert Bob J. Hoey,Jr., Connie A. Martin, Michael Dillon, Jr., and Hilary M. Clark. SUN/ David H. Brow
Lowell School Committee Members L-R, front, Jackie Doherty, Mayor John J. Leahy, Andre P. Descoteaux, back row, Robert Bob J. Hoey,Jr., Connie A. Martin, Michael Dillon, Jr., and Hilary M. Clark. SUN/ David H. Brow
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LOWELL — A motion passed by the School Committee allowing Superintendent Joel Boyd to adjust the district’s COVID-19 safety protocols based on recommendations and requirements from state and local health experts was blasted by one committee member who insisted decisions regarding the virus “are driven by fear and hysteria.”

“It’s frightening and dangerous that we’re just allowing this control to happen,” Committee member Mike Dillon Jr. said during Wednesday night’s meeting.

The Lowell Public Schools’ current COVID-19 safety protocol policy for the the upcoming academic year would require all students and staff wear masks while indoors — except those who cannot due to medical conditions or behavioral needs. Masks would not be required outdoors and may be removed for certain activities indoors, including playing instruments or eating.

The first draft of the safety protocol also includes pooled COVID-19 testing for students and staff within the schools. According to Boyd, the district will be involved in the statewide program that would implement a new “test-and-stay protocol” in lieu of requiring asymptomatic close contacts to quarantine.

All vaccinated staff and students are exempt from quarantine.

The tentative safety protocol was established after a recommendation sent to the district on Tuesday by Lowell Board of Health Chair JoAnn Keegan.

Keegan “strongly encouraged” the school district to initiate a mask mandate, saying masks are effective in mitigating the spread of coronavirus infections, which have recently spiked in Lowell and across the state.

According to the state Department of Public Health, there has been 283 new coronavirus cases among Lowell residents over the past two weeks, which equals an average of 17.2 new cases daily per 100,000 residents. The trend of increasing transmission resembles those observed statewide and is attributed to the prevalence of the delta variant. Lowell city officials said on Wednesday that the positivity rate among individuals tested for COVID-19 had increased to 3.09% as of Aug. 5.

As part of a motion passed by the Lowell School Committee on Monday night, the protocol policy as it is currently laid out could change before students head back to in-person learning on Aug. 31.

The motion passed Wednesday night is designed to allow Boyd to adjust the district’s COVID-19 safety protocols at any time based on requirements from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) and based on consultations with the city’s Board of Health.

Boyd said the district must “remain nimble” and adapt as new variants of the virus emerge, new research is released and efficacy of vaccines is assessed.

“It’s not in perpetuity, it’s not forever, nor is it arbitrary,” Boyd said about the current protocols.

Boyd stressed how quickly the requirements could change, pointing out indoor face masks were not required during summer school just a few weeks ago. Summer school was attended by approximately 4,700 youth.

The motion to allow the flexible safety protocol policy was met mostly with support from the School Committee members, except for Dillon, who provided a lengthy objection to the motion.

“I guess I want to talk about a couple things,” Dillon said. “Fear being one of them. Fear and blame. I think those are the two things that have gotten us to where we are right now with our policy making, especially around COVID.”

Despite Dillon’s negative view of the policy plan, committee member Hilary Clark praised its adaptability surrounding recommendations from health experts. Committee member Connie Martin quickly agreed.

“The flexibility within this policy is the crux of what we need,” Martin said. “I would say coming into this … the most critically important charge we have is running a safe and appropriate school system.”

She added another priority is keeping youth in school “five days a week, seven hours a day.”

“It’s a key priority and that policy allows it,” Martin said.

The motion to adopt the 2021-2022 COVID-19 safety protocol policy was passed 6-1, with Dillon the lone vote in opposition of the measure.

Follow Aaron Curtis on Twitter @aselahcurtis