School attorneys discuss COVID vaccine options

Vaccine mandate is possible, barring exemptions; towns adopt adjusted mask policy.

Attorney Paige Tobin discusses vaccine options for students in Island schools during the All Island School Committee meeting on Zoom.

The All-Island School Committee (AISC) heard from their attorneys Wednesday evening about different approaches to mandating vaccines within the student and staff population.

According to the lawyers, the general consensus around mandating vaccines in an educational institution is that it would be possible, although in ideal circumstances the school would follow the local boards of health in making the decision.

Additionally, there are several exemptions related to physical and mental health, and students and staff could also be exempt for religious reasons. 

Braintree-based school and education attorney Paige Tobin provided a written opinion issued by her firm to the committee, and went through some bullet points on mandating vaccines for students. She highlighted case law from 1907, when a school district that was combating smallpox was allowed by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts to exclude from attendance all unvaccinated children.

The law itself refers to school districts implementing health and safety measures beyond the statewide minimum immunization standards established by the Department of Public Health.

But Tobin noted that there isn’t any recent case law regarding mandating vaccines in schools, and the most recent case was in 1921. “It’s never been overturned, but there isn’t any current law that confirms it,” Tobin explained. 

She noted that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidance identifies vaccines as being the primary mitigation tool for stopping the spread of COVID. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) current guidance does not address vaccines, and Tobin said it will not issue guidance to that effect before the start of the school year. 

Tobin suggested that any decision to mandate vaccines would be stronger if the local boards of health were in support and it was upon their recommendation.

She also urged caution when considering the significant equity issues related to vaccination, and urged the school to look into disparities of access among different racial and ethnic groups in the school population.

Employment and labor attorney Sean Sweeney said that under federal antidiscrimination laws, employers can require vaccination as a condition of accessing the workplace. He noted requirements for the schools to entertain requests for accommodations for employees who have a disability or some medical reason for not being vaccinated. Similarly, if someone has a strongly held religious belief, it could also preclude them from being vaccinated. 

Sweeney said state antidiscrimination laws are less clear, but he is confident that state law would authorize a vaccine mandate.

He referred back to the smallpox case brought up by Tobin, and said he shares her recommendation that any vaccine mandate be done in collaboration with the boards of health. “They are deemed as the board that is most in tune to what is happening in the community, what the spread numbers look like, and what the degree of vaccination is within the community,” Sweeney said. 

In the near future, the AISC will meet around the same time as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) provides further guidance regarding federal approval of the vaccine. The FDA has authorized the vaccine for emergency use — it is yet to be fully approved.


Masks off outside

Upon recessing the AISC meeting, Edgartown and Oak Bluffs voted to revise their mask policy to allow staff and students to take their masks off when outdoors — following other districts that voted to amend the mask policy at the prior meeting of the AISC. 

While the Edgartown school committee was meeting to approve the change to the mask mandate, chair Kelly McCracken and member Louis Paciello were the only two remaining representatives to vote on the matter.

McCracken called for a motion to approve, to which Paciello said, “Oh, I should make the motion? Well I am going to have a hard time making a motion for an amendment on a mandate I don’t believe in.”

He asked if it was possible to make a motion to allow students to not wear masks inside, to which D’Andrea said he doesn’t think it is wise to take a vote on a matter that was not formally posted in the agenda. 

A mask policy has been in place since November 2020, according to D’Andrea, who spoke to The Times in a separate phone conversation. The policy was put in place when officials decided to implement a mandate with the condition that they could rescind it if figures looked promising. 

Initially, schools were monitoring the case rates and hoped they would be able to return to school in the fall with no masks, but based on current circumstances, that would be unwise, D’Andrea said. 

He noted that the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatricians came out with guidance that students and staff in schools should wear masks. 

Recently, the Massachusetts Medical Society and the Massachusetts Academy of Family Physicians issued a joint statement urging Gov. Charlie Baker to require masks indoors “for all who learn in, work in, or visit schools, regardless of vaccination status.”

The statement continues, “Masking is a public health measure proven to reduce the transmission of COVID-19, and decreasing transmission is critically important now, as data have shown an increase in the number of children and adults who have contracted the easily transmissible delta variant of the virus.”


  1. It was proven the virus doesn’t spread in schools when other protocols are followed. I don’t think educators should be required to get vaccinated. The flu shot is not mandatory, nor should this be.

  2. Mike– “it was “proven” ? ‘
    Could you elaborate on that “proof” please .
    This is not the flu.

    • Don
      We went a full school year without any major outbreaks. Not one on the island, not one that I know of on the Cape or elsewhere. It happened in some larger districts but that was due more to not following protocols. I work in an island school, I saw first hand that it’s safe. That enough proof?

      • No Mike, it’s not enough proof. Just because you work in a small school system that did not have any “major outbreaks”, doesn’t mean “It was proven the virus doesn’t spread in schools when other protocols are followed” It means the MV school system was lucky.

      • Mike –NO
        Your anecdotal “proof” is not good enough.
        I have been in many airports and taken many airplane flights.
        I have never been involved in or been an eyewitness of a plane crash.
        Is that proof enough for you that planes don’t crash ?

      • Mike, give it up. They wont listen to reason. They want zero cases. They are hysterical about this covid. Someof them want it to go on and on and on. Keller plane crash analogy is dumb.

  3. I like the part about an exemption for “mental health” .
    All you have to do to prove you are mentally unstable is to say that you don’t want to get the vaccine.

    • Physical and mental health matters are matters of health. Period. There are legitimate health reasons for people not to get the vaccines or to explore further with their doctor. Vaccines are not always appropriate for everyone with health problems. It is unhelpful to make fun of mental health matters that can be overcome or lived with. There are many people with serious mental illnesses who are successfully vaccinated. And the anxieties of those who legitimately cannot take the vaccine should be met with compassion, not ridicule.

      But I do not know of any religion that encourages killing your neighbors and yourself through a cult belief in stupidity, narcissism, mooching off your neighbor’s vaccine status, and selfish self-absorption— except for those in the Jim Jones religion, and now those in the anti-vaccine movement. The idiot white leaders who claim to be Christians against vaccines are not real Christians. The answer to these murderous cults is simply not to exempt a single one of them from the vaccine mandates for schools and the growing public venues that will require them. The “religious” objectors can stay home and be banned from all public interactions. There is no such thing as a legitimate religious exemption. Every single RELIGIOUS exemption on the island whose kids are not vaccinated against MMR and DPT is a dishonest, selfish, mooching scam. Stop them before they make things even worse with covid vaccine requirements. Bad enough these selfish idiots and their kids spent 3 days at the Ag Fair that did little to nothing to stop covid spread in the gathered groups on the outdoor fairgrounds. Vaccine mandate now. No fake religious exemptions.

      • Jackie– I am not making fun of mental health matters.
        I am simply saying that if you don’t want the vaccine, you have a mental health issue. I am serious about that.
        It is a tautological statement.

        • Stupidity, the confident ignorance of the antivaxers, isn’t recognized as a mental health issue, but I see your point.

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