Masks on, but social distancing off for new school year

Aug 23, 2021

Although students will be mandated to wear masks indoors, as they did last school year, social distancing will not be required, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bonny Gifford told School Committee members Monday.

With the school year set to start in about a week, Gifford told the committee about several protocols being put in place for the school year that starts on Sept. 1. 

Students will not have to maintain a distance between each other during class time, she said, although school personnel will try to maintain a two- to three-foot distance at lunch times.

Masks will be required on buses, she said, with bus windows to remain open as much as possible. 

Air filtration systems will be in place in every classroom in the district and in most adult areas, said Assistant Superintendent of Finance and Operations James Kiely.

The committee’s vote at its previous meeting to mandate masks stirred controversy, committee members said, with some in the community angered by the decision.

Nunes took heated exception to an email he received the day of the meeting, although he did not specifically cite its content.

“I sure as hell am not a coward,’’ he said. He pointed to 31 years of service on the committee.

“I’ve made decisions, right, wrong or indifferent, and I’ve stood my ground,’’ he said. 

He noted that elections for committee members are held every year. “It’s a lot easier sitting out there being a Monday morning quarterback than sitting here having to make the decisions we have to make right now,’’ he said.

Committee member Kathleen Amaral, who said she was fighting tears, thanked him for his sentiments.

“I love service to my community,’’ she said. But in recent times, she said, serving “has been a rough go.’’

When the school year starts, the schools will also adopt two “test and stay’’ programs that will test students who have potentially been exposed to Covid-19. 

Students who show symptoms at home are urged to stay home, Gifford said. 

Individuals who present symptoms while at school will undergo symptomatic testing. Shallow nasal swab samples are collected from these individuals at school.

Students who test positive will be sent home.

Testing will also be administered to those who have been deemed close contacts of anyone with Covid. This also involves collecting shallow nasal swab samples. 

Testing is administered daily for at least five days.

Parental permission is required before students can be tested, Gifford noted.

School officials have not yet decided whether to offer a third method of testing.

The goal of the testing, the superintendent said, is to “keep kids in school and not in quarantine needlessly.” 

If a student cannot attend class, there will be no remote learning option this year, Gifford said.

But teachers will work with these students much as they do with other students who have to be absent for medical reasons, she said, to ensure they maintain their academic work as much as possible. 

The decision made in Dartmouth to mandate masks will carry over to the entire state.

Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley has received permission from the education commission to put a mask requirement in place. The mandate calls for all staff, educators and students ages five and older in K-12 schools to wear masks through Oct. 1.

After that, his mandate would allow middle and high school students to forgo masks if at least 80% of students and staff in that building are vaccinated.

As of July 29, 44% of Dartmouth students ages 12-15 and 29% of those ages 16 to 19 have been vaccinated.

“We’re not there yet,’’ Gifford said of the possible 80 percent threshold needed.

“We’ve got a long way to go,’’ committee member John Nunes said.

Nunes urged parents to have their children 12 and older vaccinated if at all possible. 

Wearing masks helps keep children healthy, committee member Mary Waite said.

“Pediatric advice is very, very clear,’’ she said. “I’ve yet to hear a pediatrician who’s advising parents not to have their children masked.’’