Metro, Politics, Newton

NPS Committee Votes For Removal of Mask Mandate in a Straw Poll, Official Vote to Come Next Week

The Newton Public Schools’ (NPS) school committee agreed at a meeting Tuesday night to proceed with a vote on ending the schools’ mask mandate in the next meeting. 

In a straw poll at the end of Tuesday’s session, all nine committee members voted non-bindingly in favor of ending the mandate. The committee will convene to do an official vote next week. 

Some citizens voiced objections, including a parent with an immunocompromised child, among others.

“[My daughter] has lung scarring that makes her especially vulnerable to [COVID-19],” Newton parent Thomas Leete said. “She thinks she’s going back to school any day now, and does not know how perilously close she is to being stuck at home for another year.”

The meeting’s discussion centered around NPS’s Medical Advisory Group’s (MAG) Feb. 15 recommendation to make masks optional in schools. MAG member and retired infectious disease specialist Dori Zaleznik presented at Tuesday’s school committee meeting. 

In her presentation, Zaleznik reiterated MAG’s belief that NPS should become mask-optional but included specific exceptions to this recommendation.

“If someone has had [COVID-19] and is returning to school on day six [of their infection], then they should still wear masks through day 10,” Zaleznik said. “We thought that for [chorus] rehearsals, the participants should be masked, and that’s based on singing being an unusually strong way to spread aerosols.” 

Zaleznik also said that masks should continue to be worn on school buses, and that students should be respectful of those who decide to wear a mask after the mandate ends. 

“Whatever decisions someone makes [about masks] needs to be respected, and nobody should be judging now, because different people will make different calculations about risks, and those should all be equally viable,” Zaleznik said. “No one else knows all of the things that go into that individual decision.” 

Meeting attendees also discussed masks in Newton’s preschools. Without a COVID-19 vaccine currently authorized for children under the age of 5, several Newton residents voiced concerns that lifting the mask mandate for Newton preschools could bring risks to immunocompromised children. Zalenzik said that further discussion on mask mandates in Newton preschools is necessary.

“Preschool is a special issue,” Zaleznik said. “You all may want to have further discussions, since the majority of students in the preschools are not yet eligible for vaccination. … The MAG group still recommended optional indoor masking for preschool.”

After some disagreement about proper voting procedure, Newton’s school committee agreed to avoid an outright vote to immediately end the mask mandate in Tuesday’s meeting. Instead, the committee plans to vote on the subject next week. 

“It’s probably good to give the committee some time to hear their feedback,” committee member Anping Shen said. “I also agree that we probably need to take a few days and … make our decision and give the school some time to plan logistically for staff and for students.”

With the assistance of Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller, the committee conducted a straw poll that asked its members to vote on hypothetically making NPS mask-optional, with possible exceptions for Newton preschools. All nine committee members agreed to end the mask requirement, but the decision was non-binding. The committee also agreed that the official vote will take place at its next meeting.

Leete was not alone in his opposition to the lifting of the mask mandate. Jonathan Levy, a professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health, also spoke during the public comment section to express disagreements with lifting the mandate.

“The release of a study yesterday … showed that vaccines decline rapidly in their effectiveness for kids aged five to 11,” Levy said. “This study alone should cause us to think very carefully about next steps.” 

In response to Levy’s concerns, as well as those of other Newton parents, Zaleznik said that the MAG’s decision was partly based on the belief that there may never be a better time to end masking requirements in public schools.

“Part of the reasoning behind this is it is not clear when there’s going to be a better time,” Zaleznik said. “If we hesitate now, what will be better next month?”

Featured Image by Connor Siemien / Heights Editor

March 3, 2022