LITTLETON — Although he agreed with keeping masking through the end of the school year in June for students and teachers in school buildings, one school board member, citing a recent relaxing in federal guidelines, sought to lift masking for board meetings and the campus outdoors.
But most school board members and the Lakeway Elementary School principal said not so fast, resulting in some sharp differences of opinion and three unsuccessful motions made by Matt St. John, the newest board member elected in March.
During the COVID-19 update at Monday’s board meeting, Littleton School District SAU 84 Superintendent William Hart recommended that the district, for the next month until school lets out, maintain current policies in schools in regard to masking and social distancing.
Since the beginning of the school year in September 2020, anyone entering a school building is required to wear a mask.
Recently, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxed mask-wearing guidelines for those who have been fully vaccinated, as most North Country teachers have.
“The last time we met we saw the loosening of state and national restrictions and we took a look at what we should do for the rest of the year,” said Hart. “I think the full consensus of the administrative team and our nursing staff was we have a month left and we should stay the course. To try to do anything different is way too complicated and could be a morale issue, especially for students who see all of the adults, for example, not having to have the mask requirement. It would be a negative impact. We’ve started to identify some of our older students who have been vaccinated, but you’d then have some students not having to mask and others having to mask. We’ve been in this together for the last year or so and we figured for the last 30 days we should stick with the course. My recommendation is to stay the course.”
School board chairman Greg Cook said, “I believe the CDC had a recommendation yesterday for schools to complete the school year with their procedures and processes in place.”
Compared to higher numbers last month, LES is reporting zero students with the virus and zero staff members and one staff member in quarantine.
Daisy Bronson Middle School/Littleton High School is reporting zero students with the virus and two in quarantine and zero staff members either with the virus or in quarantine, said Hart.
St. John made his first motion, which was to adopt CDC guidance and allow vaccinated people to not have to wear masks at Littleton School Board meetings.
“I think there’s no logical reason to deny the science of that recommendation that came out on Thursday,” he said.
School board member Erica Antonucci gave the motion a second but asked about how the board can ensure that anyone not wearing a mask has been vaccinated.
“I don’t think we should police it,” said St. John. “I think we should trust people. We know who comes to these meetings.”
Cook and Hart said the current policy is masks for everyone in any district building.
St. John said that is board policy and the board can change it.
“This is a facility [the SAU 84 administrative office] that is not occupied by students and that mitigates the concerns Dr. Hart said about inequities, about students seeing teachers without masks and older students without masks,” he said. “I think we have a moral responsibility to move back to normal as fast as we can, reasonably, responsibly and safely. It’s not as if some crackpot think tank came up with this. It’s the CDC.”
Cook said the district has done so well up to this point in the school year.
“We have four weeks left, we have an immense amount of important functions going on, we have seniors that are trying to graduate in a process that is close to normal as possible,” he said. “My concern is do we jeopardize or potentially jeopardize those functions by loosening things now or do we try to ride out the rest of the year and readdress this starting July 1.”
Because the CDC is saying that those who are vaccinated don’t have to wear masks or socially distance indoors or outdoors, St. John said he doesn’t see how his motion for school board meetings would jeopardize anything.
“I’m not a virologist, so I’ll take their word for it,” he said.
School board member Larry Blaisdell pointed to the recent high numbers of positive cases in Littleton.
(Active Littleton cases are now four or fewer, although just a month ago, on April 16, they were at 51, the highest at any given time during the pandemic.)
“We’ve been hit pretty hard,” said Blaisdell. “I also think about other people’s peace of mind. There are people who won’t come here if we’re not wearing masks. While I agree we need to get back to normal as fast as we can, I think we can tough it out for six more weeks. I had my second shot seven weeks ago and still wear a mask. There’s still a lot we don’t know about this disease. I would feel much more comfortable playing it safe for the members here, for the people who come into these meetings, for the schools. There’s no reason we can’t discuss this in two weeks.”
St. John said his recommendation is not to lose masks in schools but to adopt CDC guidance for school board meetings.
“People are scared and confused because leaders have been scaring and confusing them,” he said. “No one is saying let’s introduce risk. What we are saying is the CDC says there isn’t risk.
In the end, his motion failed 3-2, with Cook, Blaisdell and school board member Ann Wiggett voting against it and St. John and Antonucci voting in favor.
His second motion was to lift mask-wearing for anyone outdoors on school grounds, be it for students, parents, teachers, vaccinated or not.
“Long before the CDC’s announcement on Thursday about masking and distance for vaccinated individuals indoors and out, they’ve been consistently clear about the limited risk of outdoors masking,” he said.
LES Principal Crystal Martin, however, asked if that motion comes with distancing recommendations because distancing is the most difficult thing to monitor on a playground.
“The complication for me is in most instances kids can maintain distance, except for when it’s free reign on the playground,” she said. “If there are some groups that are able to manage it and some groups that aren’t, I’m going to have a significant management issue out there. Like the sixth grade advocated, they admittedly are not good at distancing and they value mixing with people over going mask-free. That would be my concern. I almost guarantee I cannot keep K-3 for sure social distanced.”
St. John’s motion failed after no school board member gave it a second.
“I’m prepared to go 0 for 3,” he said.
He made a motion that sought to authorize Hart to immediately change district policy on masking only if the CDC and New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services update their policy for masking at schools.
Cook suggested amending the language to allow Hart to make any changes, in consultation with school administrators, only where he feels they are warranted and not because the CDC recommends it, unless it’s a mandate from the state governor.
St. John said that would take the teeth out of it.
“I think this is insane,” he said. “We are saying the five of us, with no molecular science background, are making a pronouncement that we have some sort of risk-abating authority over the CDC … I think this pandemic has had a negative impact on our kids. I think we have a responsibility when we are given the leeway by the authorities to make these decisions … We don’t want to be as reckless as the CDC - I think that sends the wrong message to our community and kids about risk, risk mitigation, and about living in fear.”
St. John’s motion failed after not receiving a second.
Cook said as the pandemic improves with masking and social distancing, the hope is to get school board meetings back up at the high school and move away from Zoom meetings and get back to normal, in-person meetings.