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In an about-face, Pembroke makes masks mandatory 

  • Pembroke Academy as seen on April, 2, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

Monitor staff
Published: 9/8/2021 6:06:04 PM

Deanna Dumont’s children in second, third and eighth grades will wear masks on the school bus Thursday, as is required by federal law.

Once at their schools in the Pembroke School District, however, they can choose for themselves, in defiance of a school board vote Tuesday that brushed aside the will of the people and installed a mask mandate, beginning Thursday.

“Mandating that they wear masks on the bus, I’m okay with that,” Dumont said. “That’s only for a few minutes. But once they get to school, I’m telling them to do what they’re comfortable with. Enough is enough. Parents should be making the decision, not the school.”

School Board Chair Andy Camidge was joined by members Gene Gauss and Amy Manzelli in a 3-0 vote that put the district in line with most others in the Concord area, but still rankled some parents. Two school board members – Ann Bond and April Vilani – did not attend.

School Superintendent Patty Sherman did not return a phone call seeking comment. In a memo sent to the school community at 9 a.m.,  she said, “Last evening the Pembroke School Board voted for universal masking in all of our schools. I will send a more detailed update later today, but as of (Thursday) morning, masks will be required.”

In an email to the Monitor, Camidge said he was not speaking on behalf of the board, just himself. He said he voted for the mandate because of guidelines set forth by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“It would be irresponsible to ignore the recommendation of all of these established organizations who are clearly better qualified to analyze the scientific data than I am,” Camidge wrote. “My main objective this year is to keep our children in school. It is my intention to take whatever precautions are necessary to maintain an in-person education for the students in our district.”

The school district’s website shows that as of Wednesday, the Town of Pembroke had 21 active COVID cases and one case at the Three Rivers school. Lst week, the Hill school had 2 cases and Pembroke Academy had four.

Meanwhile, the decision stunned a group of parents, who sent feedback last month and said their call to make masks optional won an overwhelming majority. That, in effect, gave the board misguided power, and too much of it, they said, citing the fact that community voices were ignored.

“How can they vote for a mask mandate when parents did not want one?” said Joseph Tyler, whose son is a junior at Pembroke Academy. 

Added Tyler, “The bottom line is that the parents and the taxpayers, a majority of them said no to the mask mandate. And then you have three people for the mask mandate. Who are they to dictate policy?”

Parents cited data, saying the number of infections in the Suncook Area and the state, in general, don’t pose a serious threat.

“Look at the historical numbers,” said Tim Gerardi, who has two children in the school district. “Look at the number of cases in Pembroke and Merrimack County and it’s less than one percent. Look at the state, also less than one percent against the total population. I don’t see a cry for mask mandates, or a cry for managing something and going into crisis mode for something that is not a crisis.”

Parents also wondered about Covid-19’s strength and ability to impact children, comparing it to the flu. Asked if he saw the other side, that there’s always the chance that the variant could be passed on and cause illness, Tyler said, “No, not at all. The majority of people said we should not have a mask mandate, and that if a kid wants to wear one, wear one.”

While that issue figures to simmer a while, the voting procedure Tuesday night was not immune to controversy, either, after board members Bond and Vilani, two strong voices against a mandate and in favor of an option, chose not to attend the meeting.

Ironically, that didn’t sit well with their allies – the parents of many schoolchildren – even though those two votes would not have changed the outcome. Supporters of a mask option are seeking a voice, and any momentum, symbolic or otherwise, that they can muster could add power to their cause. 

“That’s fair to say,” Gerardi said. “I’ve heard from parents,  from my wife, from friends, and the fact that two of our advocates were not there was certainly disappointing. They could have joined remotely for something that was a critical and pivotal point, at the start of  the school year, and the fact that they didn’t attend has a lot of people upset.”

Reached by phone, Bond referred all questions to Camidge, the board chair, but not before reaching out to disgruntled parents and telling them to call the Monitor and voice their opinions.

“I feel that they should have the option to wear masks or not,” Bond said.

Bond said that she didn’t attend Tuesday’s meeting because she felt ill, perhaps suffering from a stomach bug.

“I didn’t want anyone else to get sick,” she said.

Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.

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