Pembroke Academy ends mask mandate following state guidance

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

Monitor staff
Published: 2/24/2022 5:46:21 PM

Pembroke’s timing was right on cue Wednesday night.

On the very same day that the state announced it no longer recommends wearing masks in public indoor settings, the school board lifted its mask mandate for students and teachers and voted to allow parents to decide for themselves if their children should wear masks.

The decision came one week after residents hurled insults at the school board in an open meeting for keeping the mask mandate in place as other school districts were abandoning similar rules.

Wednesday’s 3-1 vote, effectively immediately, aligned Pembroke Academy with the grade and middle schools in the five towns affiliated with SAU 53 School District, all of which had already installed the optional policy.

Patty Sherman, the SAU 53 superintendent for the past 22 years, said the meeting, just 16 minutes long, might have been the quickest she’s attended in a long time.

The vote ended a longstanding battle that has played out throughout the Granite State since COVID hit, with a vocal group of adults claiming their rights as both Americans and parents of schoolchildren were being stepped on.

Meanwhile, school boards tended to err on the side of caution, saying masks must be worn to keep children and teachers safe while COVID spread through the community.

Wednesday’s meeting provided the perfect landing point for change. Two hours before the meeting, Gov. Chris Sununu said schools should drop their mask mandates immediately because they could be in violation of students’ rights now that public health does not recommend mask use.

“If a school district isn’t providing a fair and equitable education as the law requires them to, I imagine they would face some legal challenges,” Sununu said.

Not long after Sununu’s press conference, the Department of Education issued new guidance to schools reinforcing the point.

“The New Hampshire Division of Public Health is no longer recommending universal face mask use in indoor or outdoor settings, including school facilities,” the memo read. “NHDOE will continue to work with schools and support them as they shift their policies to align with public health recommendations.”

Leading up to Wednesday’s vote, Pembroke parents had been fed up, expressing their anger toward the board during meetings and pushing the board to rescind the mask mandate. Public comment wasn’t allowed Wednesday as the board considered its options in front of 40 or so parents.

And if COVID rates spike again, masks could be back.

In fact, a document submitted by Sherman on Wednesday, requested by board members last week to add credibility and clarity to their decision, detailed plans to reintroduce the mandate if certain thresholds arise.

“If,” Sherman’s notice said, “after consulting with DHHS, it is determined that there is an outbreak in any school, the school will move to mandatory masks for 10 days.”

Added school board member Gene Gauss, “How this policy today will hold up, and with late-breaking news, we don’t have all the details yet, so this right here can be ok, or it could be out the window.”

Only Manzelli voted to keep the mandate in place. She said the timing of Sununu’s announcement gave her no time to read the proclamation.

Her feelings came out early in the meeting, when she said, “I am pretty sure I will be in the minority tonight. I don’t agree with adopting the policy tonight.”

Camelo said she wanted to create a policy at last week’s meeting that would have made mask-wearing optional, but said she kept getting shouted down.

“I tried to get to work, but it was so disruptive that I could not speak each time,” she said.

Near the end of the meeting, after School Board Chair Andy Camidge and members Gene Gauss and Melanie Camelo had voted for optional mask-wearing, Manzelli, in a soft-spoken voice, criticized the public for its treatment of the board.

She said residents directed foul language at the board. She said the public accused board members of engaging in child abuse, they were drunk with power, and their decisions were politically motivated and had nothing to do with the welfare of the town.

“They said we were lying to the public, digging our own graves, a joke, we should be ashamed of ourselves and more,” Manzelli told the gathering. “Civil discourse should be civil. I respectfully request that if behavior like that recurs, the chair will immediately adjourn that meeting.”

The board agreed. The audience remained silent.

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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