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The Pembroke School District mandated masks, triggering COVID-19 divisions

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

Monitor columnist
Published: 9/11/2021 11:35:56 AM

Nic Carter of Pembroke chose an educational path for his three children last month based on the information he had at the time.

His kids, in grades 4, 6 and 7, all in the Pembroke School District, all excited and expecting to return to classes following a year of isolation, were not happy with dad’s decision, his change of heart: they would continue homeschooling, while their community – and, in fact, the entire country – tried to figure out what’s best for the nation’s students, now that we know COVID-19 and its variants aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Mask-wearing, the Pembroke School District said in August, was optional, and that worried Carter. He thought masks were a good idea and should be school policy. And although he got his wish in an about-face last Tuesday, when the School Board voted in favor of a mandate that would require children to wear masks at school, Carter’s wife will teach their children at home nevertheless.

Carter said he will keep the kids home because classes had already started the week before and his children are settling into their routine. Besides, despite the new school mandate, there’s no telling how many students still won’t be wearing masks. Others parents have said they’ll leave it up to their children to decide to wear a mask or not once they are off the bus. 

“Parents telling kids they don’t have to wear masks, so it was not a safe environment for kids,” Carter said. “Even though the policy turned into something mandatory, I did not trust that all the kids would follow through.”

COVID remains

COVID infections have popped up at all Pembroke schools since classes started. Warnings were sent home to parents, and on Tuesday the school board voted 3-0 to make masks mandatory, the only town in the larger school administrative unit to do so.

The move angered a vocal group of parents who argued they have a right to choose whether their children wear masks, not the school district. Make it optional, these parents said, adding that their concern for their children over infections and health risks was minimal.

The school district’s website showed one case of COVID on Friday at Pembroke Hill School and 18 at Pembroke Academy. The day before, two cases were reported at Three Rivers and 17 cases were known across town.

People such as Carter are playing things safe. Lucy, his 10-year-old daughter, has respiratory problems, something COVID loves to exploit. Optional masks means kids who don’t wear them could pass COVID to classmates even if they have no symptoms.

The initial decision to make masks optional spoiled the build-up for Carter’s children heading into the new school year. With classes actually in classrooms.

“They had toured the school and met the superintendent and principals,” Carter said. “They were all gung-ho.”

Calvin, who’s 12, was looking forward to playing soccer and basketball. Lucy, 10, couldn’t wait to join the Drama Club. Eamon, 9, simply wanted to get back an old school-yard tradition: playing with friends, learning with them, being with them.

The initial decision last month affected others as well, before they knew mandated masks would get the thumbs up. One couple he knows sent their child to a nearby Montessori School, Carter said.

Lauren Dwyer and her daughter, who’s autistic, were thankful the mandate was reintroduced. She’s going to Three Rivers School.

“I understand where others are coming from,” Dwyer said, “but at the same time, when choices can affect the health of my family, that is really something I’m not okay with.”

Dwyer and Tony Michniewicz added that several Facebook postings have turned nasty toward those who are concerned about the health of their children. Bullying, they called it. Someone in town invited Michniewicz to come over, saying he was, “welcome anytime. We are always looking for fresh meat to smash up.”

A sudden change

Michniewicz attended Tuesday’s meeting and felt relieved.

“I was pleased with the decision with respect to the mandate,” he said.

He was not pleased, however, with the original mask-optional original policy. An alert was then sent to parents: some in the sophomore class at Pembroke Academy had been exposed to COVID. Eighth graders at Three Rivers School, too.

Michniewicz’s daughter is a sophomore at Pembroke Academy. He’s got triplets in 8th grade. He received one of the warnings.

“We are notifying you because a case of COVID-19 has been identified in our 8th grade and your child may have been exposed September 7 and 8th,” it read.

The memo said guidelines set forth by the Department of Health and Human Services should be followed. Monitor children for symptoms, wear a mask when inside a public setting, consider getting tested between three and five days after possible exposure.

Shifting gears

Then, last Tuesday night, came the switch. Three members of the School Board – Chairman Andy Camidge, Gene Gauss and Amy Manzelli – voted unanimously to implement a mandate 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. Both are pro-option, and their supporters were disappointed that neither attended the meeting, saying a symbolic show of strength would have meant something beyond what would have ended in a 3-2 defeat.

The split in Pembroke echoes a larger one in the Granite State. The one in the United States that seems to fall along political alliances.  

Two key sources, Superintendent Patty Sherman and Camidge, were hard to reach. Was the decision made because of those recently discovered COVID cases in schools?

“At the meeting, I supplied the data that the board requested in order to make their decision and a motion was made to use the level of transmission at the county level in order to determine whether or not mask-wearing would be mandated,” Sherman wrote.

Camidge said he based his vote on the guidelines established by the Department of Health and Human Services and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“It would be irresponsible,” Camidge wrote in his email, “to ignore the recommendation of all of these established organizations who are clearly better qualified to analyze the scientific data than I am.”

The mandate went into effect on Thursday.

Meanwhile, the new rules for the three Pembroke School District schools are in no way attached to any of the other SAU 53 schools in neighboring Allenstown, Epsom, Chichester and Deerfield.

In fact, representatives from schools in Epsom, Chichester and Allenstown all said they’ve adopted, through their own school boards, an optional mask policy.

“Each district in our SAU is governed by their own school board,” Sherman wrote, “and each board makes their own decisions based upon what they think is best for their communities.”

Sherman did not elaborate.

Those answering the phones at schools sounded sheepish, uneasy over revealing a basic fact – mandatory mask or no?

Apparently your stance on masks could influence how some view you. Your political affiliation – perceived correctly or not – might surface, showing you’re a Biden gal or a Trump guy. People might call you names or even threaten you. 

That’s where we are.

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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