Michelle Connor

Monadnock Regional School Board member Michelle Connor takes notes during the board's meeting in the library of Monadnock Regional Middle/High School in Swanzey Center on Tuesday. 

SWANZEY CENTER — Students and staff of the Monadnock Regional School District will be required to wear masks this fall whenever community transmission levels of COVID-19 are moderate or higher, the school board decided Tuesday night.

As part of its approval of Monadnock’s school-reopening plan in mid-June, the board voted generally to follow the guidance of the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services, according to Superintendent Lisa Witte.

During a Zoom call last week with New Hampshire educators and State Epidemiologist Dr. Benjamin Chan, the state health department released a grid it recommends schools use to implement mask policies based on the virus’ rate of community transmission.

Universal masking is advised under the state agency’s grid for substantial rates of transmission, under which Cheshire County currently falls, according to the latest data from state and federal officials.

Aside from when there are multiple clusters or large outbreaks of COVID-19 within schools, universal masking would not be required for minimal or moderate transmission rates, according to the state health department’s grid.

During its meeting Tuesday night, the Monadnock board approved a more stringent version of this matrix for the district — which covers Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Richmond, Roxbury, Swanzey and Troy.

At the session at Monadnock Regional Middle/High School in Swanzey Center — which The Sentinel tuned in to via Zoom — board member Brian Bohannon of Swanzey motioned to adjust the grid to also require universal masking indoors amid moderate rates of community transmission.

“My main focus is I want children to be in school this year. That’s the only thing that I want to see,” Bohannon said. “I want them to be in school, and I want them to feel safe and focused and learning ... Wearing masks gives us the best chance to make that happen for the entire year.”

Mask requirements in schools have been hotly debated nationwide in recent weeks, as districts weigh their reopening plans amid rising COVID-19 case counts fueled by the delta variant.

Several board members agreed with Bohannon, saying they’d rather be safe than sorry when it comes to COVID-19.

“Rather than wait until the car has wrapped itself around the tree and have whole classrooms out, we’re trying to be a little proactive about it,” said member Nicholas Mosher of Roxbury, who seconded the motion.

Dan LeClair, who represents Swanzey, said the motion was unnecessary, and that masking should be voluntary for students and employees.

“I completely disagree with this,” he said. “I think it’s child abuse. I think putting children in face diapers all day long is extremely dangerous.”

Various scientific studies have proven that wearing a mask helps protect the user from the virus and prevent its spread. Face masks are recommended in indoor settings — regardless of vaccination status — by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health organizations.

Ultimately, the motion passed with a weighted vote of 8.761 to 4.229.

A second motion was made by board member Karen Wheeler of Gilsum, which would have required all of the district’s elementary students to wear masks until three weeks after they can get fully vaccinated. Currently, COVID-19 vaccines are authorized only for those 12 and older.

After that point, Wheeler’s motion said, masking for elementary school students would follow the matrix.

“This would give the opportunity for everyone to feel more comfortable and knowing their children are fully vaccinated before we eliminate the masks, just as we did for the staff,” Wheeler said.

While some board members agreed with her, others spoke against the additional precaution.

“I think that this is going to feel really ridiculous if community spread is minimal,” said Lisa Steadman of Troy, “and our children are just looking around at each other saying, ‘Why are we wearing masks?’ It’s really going to bring down morale.”

Mosher — who voted for Wheeler’s motion — said in response to Steadman that people frequently feel “pretty ridiculous” with safety measures.

“That is actually often the case with safety issues,” he said, noting he works in manufacturing. “... When safety programs are working well, they often seem a little silly, and nothing happens, and that’s actually the ideal scenario.”

Wheeler’s motion failed in a weighted vote of 10.95 to 2.05.

Prior to the discussion on the district’s specific mask requirements, public feedback included several arguments for mask policies and one against face coverings being compulsory this fall.

The district’s first day of school is Aug. 30.

Olivia Belanger can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1439, or obelanger@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter @OBelangerKS.