After some back-and-forth, Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) officials voted to suspend their mask policy commensurate with the Island boards of health removing their directive.
Thursday’s meeting of the MVRHS committee put a cap on Island schools’ debate surrounding mask orders for staff and students for the time being. With the statewide mask mandate being lifted as of Feb. 28, unmasking in schools and in the larger Island community will have to wait until at least that point, when town health officials can decide whether to keep the masks or ditch them.
On Feb. 17, after school districts broke into individual committee meetings to vote on two disparate motions related to unmasking following an All-Island School Committee meeting, MVRHS was the only district to not suspend or rescind its policy. But Thursday’s meeting put the high school in line with other Island schools, and by suspending the policy instead of rescinding it entirely, officials will be in a position to bring the mask mandate back should COVID cases climb.
There was some confusion among school officials regarding the nuance of suspending the policy versus rescinding the policy. Committee chair Amy Houghton said to her understanding, the school would have to perform three freestanding readings in order to re-enact a new mask policy if the initial policy is eliminated. Committee member Kelly McCracken said the boards of health are going to lead the way in unmasking anway, and the school will be required to enforce a mask mandate if health officials reinstate their mandate. McCracken made a motion to rescind the school policy entirely, which did not receive a second. A motion by committee member Robert Lionette to suspend the policy commensurate with Island boards of health passed unanimously.
McCracken asked at what point the school would fully rescind the policy, and whether committee members are planning on rescinding it at all. Lionette responded by saying that the level of uncertainty regarding the public health sphere, in his mind, makes suspending the policy an appropriate move due to the potential need to reinstate the policy without having to go through extensive red tape.
“At this point, Kelly, I have no idea. None of us do. Things could go sideways. I’d rather not put ourselves in a compromising position,” Lionette said.
Martha’s Vineyard Assistant Superintendent Richie Smith said local boards of health Islandwide, according to discussion at the health and safety committee, will be meeting soon to start the discussion on indoor mask mandates. “I’m not sure there is going to be any hard outcome from that soon, but they are trying to get together and be consistent,” Smith said, adding that making headway on these kinds of decisions may support health officials when they eventually meet to have parallel discussions.
Houghton said she hopes that soon, the school will be able to fully rescind its mask policy “because there is no more need to keep it as a tool in our toolbox.”
Smith also reported some recommendations from the health and safety committee regarding guidance and mitigation strategies in schools. Based on recent research, Smith said, greater than 20 percent of people who have gotten the virus are still infectious on days six through 10.
“As a result, health and safety is recommending that students will take an antigen test on day six, prior to their return to school, and if still positive, the students would stay home until they produce a negative test, or return on day 11,” Smith said.
The second recommendation made by the health and safety committee, according to Smith, was that student athletes and coaches who have previously tested positive for COVID are expected to do weekly antigen tests until their 90-day exclusion from the pool testing program (necessitated after receiving a positive test) expires.
“The thought is this will help avoid having recently reinfected students among the soon-to-be-unmasked students,” Smith said. “Student athletes should be expected to do this in order to retain their eligibility [to participate in sports].”
If a student tests negative on day six to go back to school, they will be required to take the antigen tests instead of the pooled polymerase chain reaction (PCR) pool tests.