The Block Island school committee voted to end its mask mandate on March 11, with nurse Liz Dyer telling the committee, “we have to roll the dice.” Gov. Dan McKee’s executive order requiring masks in schools expires March 4, leaving the decision to mask up to individual school districts. March 11 is a week after the students return from winter vacation.
Dyer gave the committee a brief update on the school’s covid experience so far, telling the committee that 28 students and six staff have tested positive for covid this school year. Dyer pointed out that 16 of the 28 cases occurred within a week, which she described as feeling “like a bomb hit us.” She pointed out that the school had been lucky so far, with no students having to be hospitalized.
Dyer said the biggest hurdle she sees right now is testing, as some parents still won’t allow their child to be tested. While acknowledging parents’ right to refuse testing for their child, Dyer urged people to “think outside of themselves.” Dyer said she was confident in the school’s vaccination rate, with 97 of 129 schoolchildren vaccinated (75%) and 98% of staff vaccinated.
Superintendent Bob Gerardi credited the nurses, Dyer and Linda Closter, and their strong testing program for “bringing the numbers down.” He acknowledged that “there are no easy answers” when it comes to setting school covid policies.
Gerardi told the group that a survey had been sent to parents and staff asking for people’s preference on lifting the mask mandate. Parents and staff weren’t on the same page, with 68% of parents saying they preferred the face mask policy to end on March 4, in line with the governor’s schedule for the state. Only 25% of staff agreed, with 38% voting to extend the mask mandate until April 29, which is after spring break.
School committee chair Jessica Willi pointed out that there were flaws in the survey; specifically, it was possible to complete the survey more than once. A link was emailed to parents and staff in the school’s communication list, and once you had the link, you could take the survey as many times as you wanted. Two staff members admitted to responding to the survey twice, with one saying they changed their answers the second time around.
Dyer said she would prefer to keep the masks in use until a week after the winter break, with Gerardi mentioning that in her conversations with Dr Tom Warcup the doctor spoke of the covid ‘blossoms’ that occurred on the island after the school holidays. Closter recommended keeping the masks on for two weeks after the holidays because the peak after the Christmas holidays came in the second week.
Several parents were present to lobby for an end to the mask mandate. Despite the obvious flaws in the investigation, calls have been made to respect the wishes of the parents interviewed and end the mandate on March 4.
Committee member Charlie Weber pointed out that the governor said he chose March 4 to end the term because it was a week after the February recess. Since the Block Island school takes the February vacation later than mainland schools, March 11 would be a week after students return.
Gerardi suggested that if the school committee votes to lift the mask mandate, it could include a provision to reinstate it if the number of cases begins to rise. Weber said there must be a standard, or metric, in place to determine what constitutes “demanding circumstances” for the superintendent to reinstate the policy.
After more discussion and feedback from Dyer and Closter on what it looks like when a spike starts to occur, the committee decided that five percent of students were positive as a tipping point. The covid bloom after the Christmas holidays affected 11% of the student population.
The committee voted to scrap the mask mandate on March 11, a week after students returned from winter vacation. The committee also included a provision for the superintendent to reinstate the mask policy if there is an increase in cases.
Athletic Director Matt Moran informed the group that the Rhode Island Interscholastic League still plans to require student athletes to wear masks during games and while on the sidelines, at least for the remainder of the basketball season. -ball.