State advises schools to require masks when COVID transmission is up

  • A decision matrix created by New Hampshire Department of Health gives schools a recommendation they can look to when deciding on a mask requirement. New Hampshire DHHS—Courtesy

  • While school districts fretted last year that teachers would contract COVID-19 since evidence suggested children were not as susceptible, students are now the focus. (David Carpio/Dreamstime/TNS) David Carpio

Published: 8/11/2021 7:52:43 PM

State health officials are recommending that districts put mask mandates in place whenever schools or their surrounding counties reach “substantial” levels of COVID transmission.

In a Zoom call with New Hampshire educators Wednesday, epidemiologist Dr. Ben Chan said the state is recommending school districts require masks for everyone when the level of community transmission is “substantial” even if there is no COVID-19 transmission in schools, and also when there are multiple COVID-19 clusters or a larger outbreak in the school, even if the level of community transmission is low or moderate.

“When an entire community gets to a certain level of community transmission, even if there are not necessarily cases identified in your specific town yet, the risk is there,” Chan said. “COVID-19 at this point is widespread nationally, regionally, statewide.”

The N.H. Department of Health Human Services divides counties into three categories of COVID transmission – minimal, moderate, and substantial – based on factors like population, new cases and percent positivity rates. Each county's designation is regularly updated on the DHHS website.

New COVID-19 cases have been quickly and steadily increasing since July. The state reported 160 new cases on Tuesday, a number higher than the state has seen since May. As of Wednesday evening, every New Hampshire county except Merrimack and Sullivan have reached “substantial” community transmission, due to the highly contagious Delta variant spreading rampantly through New England.

Chan presented a recommended decision matrix created by New Hampshire Department of Health to help districts decide on mask requirements. In the presentation, Chan encouraged school officials to look at their own local case data to make decisions specific to their districts.

“There is no requirement that you adopt this matrix, this matrix was intended to be a framework for how you think about implementing mitigation measures, like face mask use,” Chan said. “Recognizing that it’s not all about the county level of community transmission, but also  what’s happening at your local school or childcare facility.”

While Wednesday’s mask recommendation is not a mandate, many area school districts, including Merrimack Valley, have adopted reopening frameworks that promise to follow the recommendations of New Hampshire DHHS. Merrimack Valley School Board members decided Monday, two days before Chan’s announcement, that masks will be optional for students at all levels of community transmission.

Concord School District is taking a stricter approach, requiring masks for everyone until either the city’s vaccination rate reaches 70% or until the COVID-19 vaccine is approved for children under 12 and a sufficient period of time has passed to allow children to get vaccinated. Nashua School District will also be requiring masks.

Chan said that there are schools that might qualify for an “exception” to DHHS’s mask recommendation, including schools that have 80% COVID-19 vaccination among the population. Chan said schools can determine by referring vaccination data from their towns, sorted by age to estimate the number of vaccinated students, or else ask families to voluntarily report their vaccination status. 

About 44% of children aged 12 to 19 have been vaccinated in Concord, according to the DHHS vaccination dashboard. This puts the city far under the vaccination rate school administrators would need in order to forgo masks.

Chan also said schools might be exempt from the mask recommendation if they have a “robust” asymptomatic screening testing program implemented. For those schools, they might consider masking if there are multiple clusters or a larger outbreak of the virus within the school, but not if cases are few, according to the DHHS recommended decision matrix.

“Take into account what’s happening at your local town and facility level and you’re able to modify and adapt this to your specific situation,”  Chan said.

Teddy Rosenbluth bio photo

Teddy Rosenbluth is a Report for America corps member covering health care issues for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. She has covered science and health care for Los Angeles Magazine, the Santa Monica Daily Press and UCLA's Daily Bruin, where she was a health editor and later magazine director. Her investigative reporting has brought her everywhere from the streets of Los Angeles to the hospitals of New Delhi. Her work garnered first place for Best Enterprise News Story from the California Journalism Awards, and she was a national finalist for the Society of Professional Journalists Best Magazine Article. She graduated from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in psychobiology.

Eileen O

Eileen O'Grady is a Report for America corps member covering education for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. O’Grady is the former managing editor of Scope magazine at Northeastern University in Boston, where she reported on social justice issues, community activism, local politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. She is a native Vermonter and worked as a reporter covering local politics for the Shelburne News and the Citizen. Her work has also appeared in The Boston Globe, U.S. News & World Report, The Bay State Banner, and VTDigger. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northeastern University and a bachelor’s degree in politics and French from Mount Holyoke College, where she served as news editor for the Mount Holyoke News from 2017-2018.

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