Students must wear masks when school reopens, committee says

Aug 10, 2021

All students and staff — regardless of vaccination status — in Dartmouth’s public schools will be required to wear masks when class begins Sept. 1, School Committee members agreed Tuesday. 

One year to the day after deciding that the 2020-21 school year would begin remotely, officials opted to keep the mask mandate the district placed last year for as long as will be needed.

“I just want to see our kids back in school on day one, in one cohort, not two, in front of their teachers,” member Chris Oliver said, “and I think this is the best way to accomplish that.’’ 

With the resurgence of Covid and its more contagious delta variant, the fall mask requirement had been supported by Public Health Director Chris Michaud.

Michaud does not make decisions for the school community, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bonny Gifford said, but “we rely on his advice.” According to Gifford, Michaud said he would “support us 100 percent’’ in requiring masks.

All committee members in attendance at the remote meeting spoke in favor of maintaining masks. Committee member John Nunes was not present.

Gifford noted that even people who are younger and who have been vaccinated are reporting cases of the variant. Gifford added that there are more concerns about cases now than at the end of the school year. 

Based on “everything we’re up against,’’ including the rising number of delta variant cases, she said she supports maintaining the mask mandate, at least for a short period of time.

School officials will continue to monitor the situation, the superintendent said, “with the hope and the potential we get rid of’’ mask requirements sooner rather than later.

Gifford acknowledged that the decision “doesn’t sit well with a lot of people’’ and that they have varying opinions on the subject.

“I think it’s the right move for Dartmouth,’’ Oliver said. 

He said it was “unfortunate’’ that the Baker administration and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education “stopped short of requiring a mask mandate,’’ instead only “strongly recommending’’ that students be masked.

Oliver said he suspects the lack of a mandate was done for “political’’ reasons.

School Committee members, he said, must “look at the big picture. I look at my daughter, I look at everyone else’s sons and daughters and I want to do what’s best for the Dartmouth public schools.’’

Although mask-wearing is a “polarizing topic,’’committee member Kathleen Amaral said that requiring masks is “the only responsible thing to do.’’

Vice Chair Mary Waite said she and her colleagues “lean on our Board of Health’’ for advice and information.

“None of us want kids to go back in masks,’’ she said. “But the priority is having the kids go back.’’

Committee Chair Dr. Shannon Jenkins said committee members are not making the decision “lightly’’ and acknowledged that not everyone will agree.

“We have to have our kids in school and we have to have them safe,’’ she said. “None of us are happy to be making this decision again.’’

“If people don’t like me for it, I’m okay with that,’’ Jenkins added. “I’ll sleep okay knowing our kids will be safer — [as will] our teachers and staff.’’

Jenkins urged people to maintain a positive outlook with their children about wearing masks, no matter what their personal opinions might be.

“We need to project to our kids that they’ll be okay,’’ she said. “We need to get our kids on board — our attitudes matter more than anything.’’ 

At the next committee meeting Aug. 23, specific Covid-safety protocols for the new school year will be discussed, Gifford said.