NEWPORT — The Newport School Board will review its school masking policy with active cases surging to an unprecedented level and Newport educators calling for a tighter and more proactive guideline.
Newport schools have reported at least 33 active cases of the novel coronavirus since the school year started Sept. 7, with another 26 people still awaiting test results, according to Superintendent Brendan Minnihan. The active cases include 15 students and seven adults at Newport Middle-High School and eight students and two adults at Richards Elementary School. One case is a preschool student.
The Newport School Board voted 3-1 on Thursday to require masking inside school buildings until at least Oct. 14, when the board will discuss whether to strengthen the district masking policy.
The current district policy makes masking mandatory indoors when a school building has three or more active cases. But in August the board removed a recommended determinant from its decision-making matrix, which would have required masks in schools when Sullivan County’s community spread was at a “moderate” or “substantial” level, as defined by the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services.
Had the district based its masking requirement on community spread, students and staff would have had to wear masks on the first day of school, which drew criticism from a number of parents.
First-grade teacher Lisa Ferrigno called the board’s decision to ignore community spread “well-intentioned but short-sighted.”
“We do need to be worried about the numbers in Sullivan County because our families do not, nor should they, stay in a bubble in Newport,” Ferrigno said. “Some of our parents work in Claremont. Some of our students live in Goshen and Croyden. Some of our staff members live in Lempster and Grantham.”
Additionally, the schools are operating without many of the safety equipment and protocols employed last year, such as daily screenings and plexiglass shields. Nor is there an option for remote learning this school year.
In just 13 days the district had already compiled more active cases of the virus than in the entirety of last year, Ferrigno said.
“To say that I am worried about our students and staff does not begin to express my level of concern,” Ferrigno said.
Middle school teacher Melissa Mitchler said the number of student and teacher absences have been “astronomical” and are having an adverse impact on student learning and instruction.
“I would be curious to learn how many days where we have enough subs to cover even 50 percernt of our staff absences,” Mitchler said.
Mitchler, who made the request to change the masking policy, also asked the district to provide a weekly report of active case numbers to families and employees.
School nurse Kassie Helie said she believes masking to start the school year would have mitigated the rate of spread, as evidenced by the clusters detected this year, which were not a trend among last year’s infections.
School administrators also said that parents, not students, are the ones making the majority of complaints about masking.
“The students are not the ones complaining about masks,” said Richards Elementary School principal Patrice Glancey. “There are only a handful of kids who will take their masks off or give us a hard time about masks. I get more complaints about masking from the parents.”
The board requested the district give a full presentation at its next meeting on Oct. 14, at which time the board will decide whether or not to change the policy. The board also voted to extend the current masking requirement until that meeting, regardless of the district’s active cases.
As of Thursday, two board members — Chair Jenna Darling and Russell Medbery — indicated a preference to either change or at least strongly consider a policy change.
Masks, like many commonly used protective apparel, may not guarantee protection but “do add another layer of safety,” Medberry said.
Medberry spoke in response to his colleagues, board members Linda Wadensten and Rhonda Callum-King, who questioned the actual effectiveness of masks in the overall protocol to prevent spread, as opposed to other health practices like social distancing or sanitizing.
The fifth board member, Bert Spaulding, is still sitting out of board meetings in protest. It is presently unknown whether he would break from his routine to cast a deciding vote in case of a tie.
According to the state matrix, a moderate community spread constitutes 50 to 100 active cases per 100,000 people over a seven-day period. More than 100 active cases per 100,000 people is categorized as “substantial.” Both Newport and Sullivan County have been in the substantial category since the school year began.
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