Mask wearing to be optional, for now, at most local schools

For The Weekly Post

Back to school preparations include a unique twist this summer. In addition to shopping for shoes, clothes and books, many parents have been attending school board meetings in numbers seldom seen.

Usual crowds of 5-10 people ballooned to nearly 100 in some cases in the past month. The reason for all the sudden school board interest? To get the lowdown on rules regarding COVID-19, specifically in regard to wearing of masks for the 2021-22 school year.

So far, three local districts – Farmington, Brimfield and Elmwood – passed plans that make mask wearing optional or that merely “recommend” mask wearing. Williamsfield’s administration currently plans to require students who are not vaccinated to wear masks, though a final plan has not yet been released.

Princeville’s board plans to vote on a plan at its Aug. 10 meeting, according to Superintendent Shannon Duling.

All of that could be trumped by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, which Tuesday said individuals vaccinated against COVID-19 should wear masks indoors in areas of the country where the virus is surging.

The first board to make a decision was in Farmington, which voted to make masks “optional” at its July 19 meeting.

On July 21 in Brimfield, the school board approved language saying, “To start the year, the District anticipates that masks will be optional in the school and at school events based on the current COVID-19 positivity rates in the area.”

Brimfield Superintendent Tony Shinall said, “When I speak with folks, I tell them masks are recommended.”

Monday night, Elmwood’s board approved a plan that says, “masks are recommended for all unvaccinated individuals.”

“We are not going to be mandating masks,” Elmwood Superintendent Chad Wagner stressed.

Williamsfield has had a different take. At a July 12 meeting, Williamsfield Superintendent Tim Farquer said, “The CDC has said that people should still wear masks indoors if they are not immunized. So we’ll plan to adhere to those guidelines.”

Asked if the board would vote on masks at its Aug. 9 meeting, Farquer said that was not his plan.

“The approach I’m taking right now is we’re adhering to the guidelines,” Farquer said. “We’ll come up, the administration, with the teachers, with community feedback, we’ll come up with the implementation plan as how to implement the guidelines.”

To gather feedback, Williamsfield posted a “Back-2-School Feedback Form” on Facebook. Farquer said Tuesday the district had received 83 responses.

“More people that completed the survey provided feedback that they don’t want kids to wear masks,” Farquer said.

He said the plan is to post information about the district’s plan on Monday or Tuesday, Aug. 2-3.

Farquer said children under 12 will be required to wear masks, since they are not yet eligible to receive the vaccine. Older students who are not vaccinated will be asked to wear a face covering, he said.

Farmington, Brimfield and Elmwood boards also voted to allow use of lockers and drinking fountains, for the resumption of music programs and field trips, and a return to the traditional time schedules.

At all schools, masks are being required for students who ride buses, as per previous CDC rules for public transportation.

Beyond masks, the districts had different plans for remote learning, mitigation levels and quarantine rules as well as which source for numbers they use for positivity rates.

All involved stressed that plans are subject to change based on COVID positivity rates and new recommendations by the CDC.