A young boy cries to his father after being tested for COVID-19 at the free testing being offered by the state in Chelsea Square. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

If it weren’t for the media and the government, most of us would have no clue that we’re living through a health crisis.

Be that as it may, the East Longmeadow School Committee met this month to discuss the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s extension of the statewide school mask mandate.

In a letter dated September 27, 2021, Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley extended the school mask mandate to November first.  Here are just a few points from the commissioner’s letter:

  • Public school students (age 5 and above) and staff in all grades are required to wear masks indoors in schools.
  • Children under five are strongly encouraged to wear masks when at school.
  • Students may remove their masks when eating, drinking, and during “mask breaks.”  The letter notes that “meals and outdoor recess provide built-in mask breaks.”
  • Students who play wind instruments at school should wear “instrument masks (masks with a slit or hole cut for the mouthpiece).”
  • Masks are required for all indoor sports.

Before you think that this is all getting way out of hand, Commissioner Riley graciously gives some students and staff a way to finally remove their masks.

The letter states,

if a school demonstrates a vaccination rate of 80 percent or more of all students and staff in the school through an attestation form submitted to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), then vaccinated individuals in the school would no longer be subject to the mask requirement.

However, “unvaccinated students and staff would be required to continue wearing masks.”

These requirements were dutifully reported by superintendent Gordon Smith at the start of the school board’s meeting.

Smith told the board members that, in compliance with DESE’s directions, East Longmeadow school nurses were beginning to collect data on the vaccination rates of each school.

(Although Smith repeatedly stated that reporting was voluntary, no one addressed the fact that Commissioner Riley’s proposal would ultimately lead to school settings where unvaccinated students and staff are effectively forced to wear their vaccine status on their face each and every day.)

The head nurse for the school district then joined the meeting and provided vaccination numbers for our schools: 62% of high school students are vaccinated.  58% of seventh and eighth grade students are vaccinated.  And 34% at Birchland Park Middle School students have gotten the vaccine.

Members of the board then expressed their frustrations and concerns with DESE’s directions.

The board members noted that there’s currently a local mask mandate that imposes masks on all students regardless of the DESE requirement. 

The board then discussed people’s reluctance to receive the vaccine. One member stated,

A lot of it has to do with people being leery about the vaccine.  If they allowed the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to be taken by the kids, I think we would she a spike in people getting their children vaccinated because it’s just more traditional.  It’s more like the regular flu vaccine you’ve been getting.

Board member Gregory Thompson then added,

There’s not much incentive to get [the vaccine] because even if you get it you have to wear a mask and even if you get it you have to get a booster.  What’s the incentive?  We’re all sitting here with masks on even though we’re all vaccinated.

He then expressed doubts that the district will be able to satisfy DESE’s 80 percent requirement.

If we’re at 62 percent, 80 percent is a high threshold.  I think [the district] is maxed out.  People who were going to get it already got it.

To watch the brief exchange quoted above, watch the following video.