School Committee “rolls the dice” on masks

Fri, 02/18/2022 - 5:30am

The Block Island School Committee voted to end its mask mandate on March 11, with Nurse Liz Dyer telling the committee, “we have to roll the dice.” Governor Dan McKee’s executive order requiring masks in schools expires on March 4, which leaves the decision on masking up to each individual school district. March 11 is one week after the students return from winter break.

Dyer gave a brief update to the committee on the school’s covid experience to this point, telling the committee that 28 students and six staff members tested positive for covid this school year. Dyer pointed out that 16 of the 28 cases occurred in one week, which she described as feeling “like a bomb hit us.” She emphasized that the school had been lucky thus far, with no student requiring hospitalization.
Dyer said the biggest barrier she sees currently is testing, as some parents still will not allow their child to be tested. While acknowledging the parents’ right to refuse testing for their child, Dyer asked people “to think outside of themselves.” Dyer said she felt confident in the vaccination rate in the school, with 97 of the 129 school children vaccinated (75 percent) and 98 percent of the staff vaccinated.
Superintendent Bob Gerardi credited the nurses, Dyer and Linda Closter, and their robust testing program with “keeping the numbers down.” He acknowledged that “there aren’t any easy answers” when it comes to setting covid policies in school.
Gerardi relayed to the group that a survey had been sent to the parents and staff, asking for people’s preference on lifting the mask mandate. The parents and staff were not on the same page, with 68 percent of parents saying they preferred to have the face mask policy end on March 4, following the Governor’s timeline for the state. Only 25 percent of the staff agreed, with 38 percent voting to extend the mask mandate until April 29, which is after spring break.

School Committee Chair Jessica Willi pointed out that there were flaws in the survey; specifically, it was possible to take the survey more than once. A link was emailed to the parents and staff in the school’s communications list, and once you had the link you could take the survey as many times as you wanted. Two staff members admitted they had taken the survey twice, with one saying they had changed their answers the second time.
Dyer said she would prefer to keep masks in use until a week after winter vacation, with Gerardi mentioning that in his conversations with Dr. Tom Warcup, the doctor talked about the “blossoms” of covid that have happened on the island after school vacations. Closter recommended maintaining masks for two weeks after vacation, as the spike after Christmas break occurred during the second week back.
Several parents were in attendance to push for ending the mask mandate. Despite the obvious flaws in the survey, there were calls to respect the surveyed parents’ wishes and end the mandate on March 4.

Committee Member Charlie Weber pointed out that the Governor had stated that he picked March 4 to end the mandate because it was one week after February break. Since Block Island School is taking February break later than the mainland schools, March 11 would be one week after the students return.

Gerardi suggested that if the School Committee voted to lift the mask mandate, they could include a provision to reinstate it if the case number started to rise. Weber said that there needed to be a standard, or metric, in place to determine what constituted “exigent circumstances” to allow the superintendent to reinstate the policy.
After more discussion and input from Dyer and Closter on what it looks like when a spike starts to happen, the committee decided on five percent of the students testing positive as the tipping point. The blossom of covid after Christmas break affected 11 percent of the student population.
The committee voted to remove the mask mandate on March 11, one week after students return from winter break. The committee also included a provision allowing the superintendent to reinstate the mask policy if there is a rise in cases.
Athletic Director Matt Moran informed the group that Rhode Island Interscholastic League was still planning to require student athletes to wear masks during games and while on the sidelines, at least through the remainder of basketball season.