CANAAN — Only one school district in all of Vermont has not put in place a mandate for students and staff to begin the school year wearing masks because of the ongoing pandemic concerns.

And that district is Canaan.

The school board for this school district very near the Canadian border and abutting New Hampshire voted 5-1 to reject the state’s recommended COVID-19 prevention measures for Fall 2021 - chiefly the use of face masks as school resumes.

The Board’s rejection makes Canaan the only public school in the State of Vermont which has not instituted a mandatory masking policy as school begins amid continuing concerns over the more contagious Delta strain of the COVID-19 virus.

Minutes from a mid-August school board meeting reflect that “a large crowd of parents, students and community members attended the meeting for public comment on the wearing of masks with the majority of the public comment stating the decision to wear a mask should be parent choice.”

Dan Wade, chair of the Canaan School Board, said the board is not against mask-wearing, and the reason that they are not mandating masks has been misconstrued in media reports. He said on Thursday that the board “requested direction from the AOE and we really didn’t get it, all we got was you cannot back up the mask mandate.”

He said he contacted the school boards association and asked if “we can actually enforce it and that was a very questionable point at that time and the answer was ‘no, I don’t think we can.’ ”

Wade said the board took that as “no, we can’t back it up and that would have created a vacuum for teachers and the administration … if the parents up here knew full well we couldn’t back it up and the principal knew we couldn’t back it up … he would have to say ‘you’re right, I can’t back it up, go back to class,’ and that would have created an incredibly difficult situation for the teachers and the administration and quite frankly the board.”

“What we did say, basically following the AOE’s direction, is suggesting mask-wearing, that is correct,” said Wade, “ … which is pretty much what the AOE came out with. I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know what’s going to happen on Sept. 13th. We’re going to have another discussion and I would imagine it’s going to be another colorful discussion.”

With the information that mask-wearing really could not be enforced, the community was expecting pushback, “We had a large population up here who were vehemently opposed to not wearing masks,” explained Wade.

The school asks that students stay home if not feeling well. Masks will be optional but “highly recommended when indoors.”

The school says masks will be required on busses, as required by federal guidelines.

Over a million dollars ($1,085,622) of ESSER funds are being dedicated to ventilation upgrades.

Canaan Superintendent Karen Conroy added, “We have continued to promote vaccinations and have been holding clinics in our school buildings for students who are eligible, staff, and our community throughout the summer and into this fall. We do have a high number of staff already fully vaccinated. A quick anonymous survey during our opening day identified that 86% of those who responded were vaccinated.”

School resumed Aug. 30th in Canaan.

“We’ll be moving lunches back into the classrooms to keep students socially distanced and have enrolled in surveillance testing for students and staff to start in September,” said Conroy. “We are doing everything we can to help mitigate the virus from spreading in our schools outside of the “requirement” to wear a mask indoors. As I walked through classrooms today, all of my elementary classroom teachers were wearing masks but the majority of students are not, based on their parent’s choice. Parents in the community were very vocal about their ability to make the decision to wear a mask or not for their children. We have never had that many parents turn out for a school board meeting in my four years as superintendent.”

Conroy said, “With reports of the new variant in other areas of the state, I just continue to pray that my students and staff stay safe and healthy.”

Jason Maulucci, the governor’s spokesman, contacted for comment from state officials on Wednesday, said, “The Governor is disappointed in the School Board’s decision. He strongly advised that all districts adopt the State’s recommendations, which were made in conjunction with the Dept. of Health and the Agency of Education.”

“To our knowledge, Canaan is the only district in the state that has failed to adopt masking requirements in some way, especially for students under 12 who are not yet eligible for vaccination,” the statement continued, “We hope they reconsider.”

In a note to families, Conroy listed a series of steps being taken to try to reduce the risk of COVID spread in the school.

“We must all recognize that the situation is somewhat fluid and subject to change,” Conroy’s memo concluded. “We will continue to monitor the situation and adjust as we receive updated guidance or as our specific context changes. We anticipate there will be further clarifications and updates provided as we start the school year.”

On Thursday, Conroy said, “I have had only four parents that have shared concerns with the no mask mandate. One family, we were able to accommodate with a different learning environment due to a medical 504 plan. The others are sending their children to school with masks.”

Kate Larose, a Canaan parent of an 8-year-old who is at high risk for COVID complications, on Thursday said, “Back in June the Vermont Agency of Education preempted districts from being able to require masks in schools during the last week of the school year and throughout the duration of summer learning. Then in August the Scott administration did an about face, kicking the protection of students during a global pandemic to local control. In both cases the end result was disproportionate harm to students with disabilities through the categorical exclusion of a free appropriate public education.”

Larose said, “These were predictable consequences of political cowardice at the state level and angry mob mentality at the local level. Superintendents around the state were hamstrung from doing their jobs and now families like ours are left having to drive four hours a day to ensure access to safe learning environments for our children.”

Some NH Towns Not Requiring Masking

Across the river, in New Hampshire, some districts are likewise not mandating mask-wearing as school resumes.

In Groveton, School Administrative Unit #58 has made masks optional “inside the school facilities if students can maintain three feet or more of social distancing,” a memo posted for families on Sept. 1 on the district’s website lays out. “Masks are mandatory on buses per the CDC and DHHS. Masks will become mandatory for one month in the facility (as applicable) if a building reaches a positivity rate of 5 percent of the total population of adults and students, per the SAU #58 School Board on Aug. 30, 2021,” wrote Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ronna Cadarette.

In Haverhill, the school board there likewise made mask-wearing optional.

Students were not required to wear masks when schools opened this week, the school board decided.

In an emergency meeting held at the Haverhill Cooperative Middle School gymnasium, the school board rejected three motions to create a mask mandate in spite of rising COVID-19 infections and the prevalence of the more contagious Delta variant.

However, the school board left the door open for policy changes.

By a 3-2 vote, they authorized Superintendent Laurie Melanson to take whatever action she deemed necessary to protect the school community.

They also recommended the creation of a “mask matrix” to set COVID thresholds that would trigger mask-wearing in schools.

The emergency meeting was called to address public concerns over the school district’s “mask optional” policy that was approved on June 14 and reaffirmed on Aug. 2.

The two-hour meeting drew nearly 100 people (in person and virtually), and 16 spoke on mask requirements.

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