JAFFREY — Students in Jaffrey and Rindge are expected to start the academic year without a mask requirement under a new matrix for COVID-19 precautions the school board adopted Monday night.
The matrix, approved as part of adjustments to the Jaffrey-Rindge Cooperative School District’s reopening framework, will be used to determine whether social distancing and mask wearing would be required based on the rate of community transmission of the virus and the number of students out sick — with any illness — at a given time. The board also considered a recommendation about requiring masks on buses but voted to defer to any federal mandates or to the new matrix, following concerns raised that another New Hampshire district may not be enforcing mask requirements on buses.
In addition, the board referred a recommendation to allow outside groups to use school facilities — on the condition that they be responsible for clean-up after they’re done — to the board’s policy committee for further review. The three recommendations came from a reopening committee comprising Jaffrey and Rindge residents as well as members of the school community.
“The goal of this committee is: We need kids in school,” Superintendent Reuben Duncan said at Monday’s meeting, which was held at Conant High School’s Pratt Auditorium in Jaffrey and also accessible via Zoom. “We need them to be learning, and we want them here; they need to be in attendance.”
Prior to Monday, the district’s reopening guidance said that there would not be a mask requirement but that one could be reinstated in the event of an outbreak.
According to the new matrix, schools with 20 percent or more of their populations out sick should implement a mask mandate and require social distancing. However, school officials said the district had rarely seen those circumstances arise, even during the worst days of the pandemic in 2020.
When the board originally approved the district’s reopening framework in June, Duncan said, COVID-19 case counts were lower. The district’s member communities also have low vaccination rates. Duncan provided statistics showing Rindge’s vaccination rate at 34.6 percent, and 44.2 percent in Jaffrey — in line with data shown on the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services’ website. The most updated statewide vaccination rate is 53.8 percent, the website says.
The motions to send the use-of-facilities question to the policy committee and to defer to federal mandates or the new matrix with regard to masks on buses passed unanimously. The matrix was adopted, 6-1, with board members Marcea Gustafson-Belletete, Charles Eicher, Patricia Farmer, Christine Pressman, Alicia Stenersen and Lisa Wiley voting in favor, and board member John McCarthy voting against.
However, some residents said the recommendations leave a lot to be desired. Though several people in the audience raised a number of concerns during the two-hour meeting, two issues brought up repeatedly were mask requirements and remote-learning options. Rindge resident Max Geesey took issue with both.
Geesey questioned whether there would be a remote option if a school implements a mask requirement. If a mandate is in place, he said, children should have the choice of not attending class in person. Upon learning the district does not plan to offer remote learning if face coverings are required, he said he felt many parents in the district would be opposed to this and urged the board to give the matter some extra thought.
“This is America. We should still be free,” he said to enthusiastic applause from the crowd.
Mask requirements in schools have become a hot-button issue during the past several weeks, as districts weigh their reopening plans amid rising COVID-19 case counts fueled by the delta variant.
In Jaffrey-Rindge, it’s not just those who are worried about mask mandates who want to see the school district provide a remote option. Jaffrey mom Jennifer Clark says she has three children, some of whom are at high risk for COVID complications, and that her youngest isn’t old enough to get vaccinated.
“There is an entire group of students who have no option to not attend schoo,l and there is no remote learning being offered for those students who cannot attend in person because it is medically impossible for them,” she said. “Is the school going to even try to offer remote [learning] to those students? Or do we just have to go elsewhere to try to get them an education?”
Several school board members expressed interest in investigating whether remote instruction could be offered for students who needed it.
Other residents worried about the school’s plan to use general illness as a variable for the masking/distancing matrix rather than COVID-19 specifically.
However, not everyone in the crowd was concerned about the potential requirements. At least one district resident advocated for the preventative measures, saying they would help ensure students continue to get an in-person education.
“One thing that I worried about is if we don’t have protocols in place and our numbers go into substantial [community transmission], to me that’s a worse effect for kids, is to then have to stay home and go remote again, which none of us want to do,” said Rindge resident Shauna Smith. “And we don’t have to go there again if we have protocols in place.”