Salem Schools Will Not Lift Mask Order As State Mandate Expires

SALEM, MA — The indoor mask order for Salem Public Schools will extend beyond when the statewide mandate is set to expire on Feb. 28.

The School Committee met for an hour in a special Council of the Whole session Tuesday night and discussed potential metrics around when lifting the district order might occur, but did not take a vote. The next scheduled School Committee is the night of the day when students in districts across the state will be able to go mask-optional for the first time in two years of the COVID-19 health crisis.

Because the Salem School Committee voted in its district-wide mandate before the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education statewide mandate was imposed late in August, the Committee must vote to lift the order within city public schools.

"It's fair to say that nobody wants us wearing masks forever," Salem Mayor and School Committee Chair Kim Driscoll said. "Nor do we want to lift them in an area that's just targeting a date and not necessarily tying it to some metrics and understanding how we can keep students and staff and our families safe."

School Committee members cited low vaccination rates — especially within certain schools and among certain demographics of students — as a reason for hesitancy in lifting the order as of Feb. 28 — as Beverly, Danvers and Peabody have all determined they will do in recent days.

Public comment was not allowed at the meeting. While details of a family survey were not provided, it was referenced that at least a plurality of those who responded last week was in favor of lifting the order.

While vaccination rates vary widely across schools, only 34 percent of students at the Bentley School are vaccinated with 48 percent of all students kindergarten through fifth grade vaccinated in Salem. The vaccination rates of sixth through eighth grade and high school students are both about 65 percent.

According to district figures, 70 percent of white students, 71 percent of Asian students, 52 percent of Black students and 43 percent of Latino students are vaccinated.

"When I think about the data points that I certainly want to see move," School Committee Vice-Chair Manny Cruz said, "before I get comfortable with the thought of masks being optional, the vaccination rates certainly are at top of mind along with the case counts.

"Looking at the Bentley numbers, and looking at the demographic data, it's really alarming. It speaks to that vaccine hesitancy among certain communities. I know the staff is doing all it can to raise the numbers there. But my concern is that it's a really scary number to see only 34 percent of students are vaccinated."

School Committee members also expressed concern that the statewide order is expiring on the day after a school vacation — where case counts have traditionally surged over the last year-plus since a return to the classroom.

Salem Hospital Pediatric Specialist Dr. Clovene Campbell said that while she shares those vacation-return concerns there could be value in setting a target date to make masks optional instead of mandatory.

"It's a reasonable off-ramping into some sense of normalcy," Campbell said. "I am not hard and fast into the 28th date that the governor has set. ... It's a reasonable goal to project to at least investigate lifting our schools' mask mandate two weeks after the school vacation when we can be certain that we have a command of some data as regards to not having significantly elevated levels of cases.

"And it provides a hopeful set point for everyone to believe that we're heading in that direction where masks are optional and there is something to look forward to."

Salem Public Schools School Psychologist Anna Martel added that while there is no direct evidence that masking in schools has a detrimental effect on mental health for most students, she believes that many students will benefit from their removal.

"From a social-emotional standpoint, I know that the sooner we can return to normal as far as masks go the better for all students and staff too," she said, adding that many students struggle when they can't read facial expressions and others use masks to "hide" and not interact with their peers. "Staff are burned out. It's harder to teach with a mask on."

There was some acknowledgment that at some point society will shift to a level of risk acceptance with the virus.

"I get that people are super tired of this pandemic," School Committee member Dr. Kristin Pangallo said. "I am very tired of this pandemic. I've thought a lot about this over the past few weeks, and past few months, this transition. I think this transition is really hard. It's hard for some people because they just want it done. It's hard for others because they are really concerned. That desire for normalcy is understandable.

"I also suspect that we are heading into a new phase of this pandemic where we are starting to move away from some of these mitigation strategies and we're hopeful that case counts will still go down."

(Scott Souza is a Patch field editor covering Beverly, Danvers, Marblehead, Peabody, Salem and Swampscott. He can be reached at Twitter: @Scott_Souza.)

This article originally appeared on the Salem Patch