Amid parent anger, school districts reconsidering, rescinding mask mandates

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

Monitor staff
Published: 2/16/2022 5:59:11 PM

Editor’s note: This story has been changed because a quote by School Board Member Melanie Camelo was incorrectly attributed to Superintendent Patty Sherman. 

Tuesday night was a long one for Pembroke School Board, as they sat for much of their public meeting acting as a verbal punching bag for parents who are tired and angry with the board’s decision to keep students masked in school.

Similar to their other recent public board meetings, Tuesday became a one-sided oral sparring match, with parents and community members unleashing their anger on the board for the mask mandate that began at the start of the school year.

Two motions to make masks optional – one immediately and one after spring vacation – both failed.

Patty Sherman, co-superintendent of SAU #53, told parents and board members she had met with school nurses and principals who were in favor 0f making masks optional.

“The nurses spoke about concerns about clusters, however, most do not appear to be a wide school setting spread,” Sherman said, according to minutes of the meeting. “They would like the option of making case by case decisions if needed.”

Pembroke parents are not alone. More schools have recently decided to lift their student mask mandates. At the start of this month, the Andover Elementary/Middle School made masks optional, as did the Merrimack Valley School District effective Tuesday. Concord School Board will reconsider its mask policy at its next meeting.   

Merrimack Valley set an 8% positivity rate threshold for COVID infections that could trigger mask mandates again. If a single body, students or faculty, is over the 8% positivity rate, they and the entire building will be subject to masking for two weeks. Andover adopted a similar policy but still encourages mask use.

Other districts, like SAU #24, which includes schools in Weare, Henniker and Stoddard, are currently requiring masks based on outbreaks and transmission rates within the community.

In Pembroke, the school year started with an optional mask-wearing policy, but the school board promptly voted 3-0 to overturn that in early September after several internal cases built up to start the year.

Since then parents have collected signatures and threatened to vote out the current school board.

On Tuesday, one parent of a Pembroke student stepped to the microphone to close out the public work session, and emphatically voiced that he didn’t want his children to be masked up.

“I will tell everybody what is right for my child, not the other way around,” he said

Other parents complained about the social effects and discomfort of children wearing masks all day.

When the board originally approved the mandate, they cited the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services’ school and childcare toolkit and other governmental recommendations as part of the reason for voting in favor of the mandate.

Some Pembroke parents said there has been no scientific evidence provided to validate the board’s decision.

As board members attempted to answer the public’s questions, they were was muffled by the voices being thrown their way. Eventually, the board considered two motions to scale back mask requirements.

“Masks are not going to be an all or nothing thing,” said School Board Member Melanie Camelo. “There's going to be cases within our schools. There's going to be cases within the classroom. I'm not ready to go mask optional until our school nurses, who are doing evidence-based practices for registered nurses, are comfortable. I am going to be looking for a matrix that shows x-amount of cases in this class, they need to wear a mask or leave.”

The first motion proposed that mask-wearing wou ld be optional for students and faculty effective immediately, with school nurses being able to make targeted use of masks depending on case totals. This failed to pass by a 1-3 vote.

The second motion would have made masks optional after the school’s next vacation, beginning on March 7. It failed by a 2-2 vote.

At the end of the meeting, the board asked for a written plan for optional masking to be presented at its next meeting on March 15. 

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