Mask requirement question puts school districts in the middle of a great divide

By: - August 26, 2021 5:45 am
A school board meeting in a gymnasium

In August, Merrimack Valley School District hosted a contentious meeting to discuss whether to require students to wear masks. In districts throughout the state, school board elections are shaping up to be very different than races in recent years. (Ethan DeWitt | New Hampshire Bulletin)

Deep into a late-night school board meeting on the future of mask mandates in the Merrimack Valley School District, Chairwoman Seelye Longnecker paused to take stock of public opinion. 

A torrent of parents had emailed ahead of the emergency meeting with views on their preferred policy. The question was simple: Should masks be required? But the verdict was impossibly split. 

“It’s dead even,” said board member Lorrie Carey, tallying up the emails. “Dead even.”

Without a public mandate, the board plodded toward its own answer. Over four and a half hours, members struggled to attack the issue head on. They debated stripping out redundant language from existing school policy. They parsed through how best to measure transmission levels. They listened to an hour of speeches from the public, and faced outbursts and profanity from frustrated observers walking out.  

But by 10 p.m, the main topic still had not been broached. 

“I feel like we’ve gotten to little things, taking this out and taking that out,” Carey said. “But we are not addressing the primary question of why we’re here: Are we going to require masks or not?” 

An hour later, the board arrived at a decision: The district would require masks on days with significant local COVID-19 transmission. By then, half the room was gone. 

As the new school year swiftly approaches, and with cases of the Delta variant of COVID-19 swelling and child hospitalizations beginning to rise, New Hampshire school boards are frantically convening to reassess their masking policies within their return-to-school plans. But as they do, board members have been forced to negotiate a now-familiar divide in their communities. 

Some districts, like Manchester, Nashua, and Concord, are moving ahead definitively, requiring indoor masking for all students. 

Others, like Goffstown, are taking a “targeted” approach to mask mandates: limiting mandates to clusters and classrooms as necessary if infections make it necessary, but attempting to keep school-wide requirements optional.

Merrimack Valley School District opted for a nuanced strategy, requiring masks on days when county transmission rates hit a certain level – “substantial” – and making them optional on other days. 

Then there’s Hopkinton. After an hours-long meeting Tuesday night, the town’s school board opted not to take a vote at all, moving instead to leave the question of whether masks should be worn with the school’s superintendent.

To some, the patchwork of mask-wearing policies harkens to a tradition of local control in New Hampshire. But it’s also a reflection of conflicting interpretations of the state Department of Health and Human Services’ guidance on school mask policies.

In a briefing to school administrators earlier this month, state epidemiologist Dr. Benjamin Chan laid out a suggested rubric for schools that tied the decision to implement a mask mandate to the county transmission rate of COVID-19 cases. Schools in counties identified by DHHS as having “substantial” transmission should consider universal masking, Chan said. Those without substantial transmission rates should consider targeted mask requirements if and when clusters of cases or outbreaks are identified, Chan added.

That decision rubric has formed the backbone of many schools’ masking policies. But school board members on both sides of the debate have interpreted the guidance differently. Some have seen the department as suggesting that schools merely recommend universal masking for students; others have read the word “universal” as a recommendation that schools impose a mandate. 

With classes starting soon and mask policies varying in intensity, enforcement is its own administrative challenge. As families walked out of Monday’s school board meeting in Merrimack Valley, some suggested they wouldn’t follow the new guidance at all.

“Absolutely not: My kids will not be wearing masks to school,” said Alex Eddy of Penacook, standing in a drizzle in the school parking lot just before midnight. “Any family I know that are good friends of ours, they will not be wearing masks, I guarantee you.”

Another, Terese Grinnell, threatened to withdraw her children from the district. 

Over more than an hour of public comment, parents like Eddy fleshed out a familiar debate coursing across the country. 

Some, like Eddy, pushed for parental choice, listing opinions of why masks are not necessary or effective, and raising concerns about the challenges of masks in classrooms. 

Others invoked science indicating the effectiveness of masks or the danger presented by the dominant mutation of the virus, the Delta variant. 

“If a nurse tells you that masks are not necessary, you should know that they are out of step with the American Nurses Association, the American Hospital Association, and the American Medical Association,” said Marcia Harrison, a Penacook nurse. “Public service announcements from those groups all recommend the use of cloth masks in public for adults and children. Let us be swayed by facts, not misinformation and vitriol.”

Derek Lesperance drew on his military service, and appealed to a sense of community. 

“I don’t have to wear this mask,” he said. “And I walk around anybody here without it. But if this gives not my children but anybody’s children even a 10 percent chance of not getting sick, I’ll take it.”

Some testimony conveyed the intensely personal nature of the debate. 

Amanda York, from Loudon, drew on her experience at a school board meeting two weeks earlier. She had testified against mask mandates, and someone had later called her human resources office at her work to tell them about it. It was an attempt to threaten her job, she argued. 

“I am here to speak for my children,” she said. “I demand to maintain my authority to decide what is best for my children.”

School board members, caught in the middle, struggled with the concept of a “compromise.” Some concluded that there was none to be had.

“It is impossible for us to please everybody,” Bobbi-Jo Michael said. “It’s impossible.”

As frustrated parents on both sides of the issue watched on Monday, one Merrimack Valley board member, Melissa Muzzy, suggested that making mask usage voluntary might be a more effective approach than a mandate – particularly when it came to winning over skeptical parents and students.

But her colleagues disagreed. 

For his part, Gov. Chris Sununu has avoided direct recommendations. “If you are thinking this is about the mask or no mask, you are missing the boat,” he said at a press conference this month. “Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine. Masks are not the solution. Vaccines are.”

Next month, teachers and administrators in New Hampshire schools will have to navigate the division with students. One man named Alex, speaking near the end of the public comment period, gave board members and school administrators a preview of the headaches to come.

Addressing the unmasked side of the room, he said: “We simply can just not comply.” 

“What are they going to do, suspend them all?”

Half the crowd thundered their applause.   

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Ethan DeWitt
Ethan DeWitt

Ethan DeWitt is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s education reporter. Previously, he worked as the New Hampshire State House reporter for the Concord Monitor, covering the state, the Legislature, and the New Hampshire presidential primary. A Westmoreland native, Ethan started his career as the politics and health care reporter at the Keene Sentinel. Email: [email protected]