NEWPORT — Masks were once again optional at Newport’s middle and high schools on Friday after the school board declined to continue a districtwide mandate it had instituted last month due to a spike in COVID-19 cases in the town’s schools.

The board, in a 2-1 vote, rejected a motion put forth by Vice Chairman Russell Medbery that would have required masks in Newport schools whenever there is “substantial” transmission in Sullivan County, as is recommended by public health officials and the district’s own COVID-19 task force. Transmission is currently substantial in all counties in New Hampshire.

Instead, the board took no action on the issue of masks on Thursday, so its August decision to require masks only when there are three or more active cases in a particular school still holds.

“We will be made out to be the bad guys no matter what decision we choose,” Jenna Darling, the board’s chairwoman, said during Thursday’s meeting, which was held in person at the Newport Middle/High School and via Zoom.

On Friday, masks remained in place at Newport’s Richards School and the district’s pre-kindergarten, which still had three or more active cases.

As of Thursday evening when the school board met, the middle school and high school were down to two active cases each, according to Kassy Helie, the middle/high school nurse, who gave a presentation to the board.

Newport Superintendent Brendan Minnihan confirmed in a Friday email that masks were not required in the middle and high schools on Friday, but he said, “Monday may be different.”

In its decision, the board sought to strike a middle ground between the parents and students who spoke against any form of mask requirement, and teachers and some parents who spoke in favor of requiring masks to prevent children from missing more days of school.

Most of the dozen or so parents and students who spoke during Thursday’s meeting asked the board to make masks optional. Some questioned whether masks were effective, others pointed to potential downsides of masking, and most said they wanted the freedom to make their own choices about whether or not to wear masks.

Students “should be able to choose” what they wear, said Annalee Hall, a student at Newport High School.

Newport parent Tim Beard said he felt the mask requirement infringes on children’s rights and he feels fears of COVID-19 are largely unfounded. He said that many members of his family have been infected with COVID-19 with few adverse outcomes, except for one relative who had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

“He was going to die from it no matter what,” Beard said.

Some parents spoke in favor of masks, including Jessica Rothbart, who spoke via Zoom.

“I am using all the strength I have in the day to sit in this chair right now and speak with you guys,” said Rothbart, who said that six of her eight family members currently had COVID-19. “Breathing is very hard for me right now.”

Rothbart asked the board to consider the well-being of all the district’s children in making the mask decision.

“Please do not take this lightly,” she said.

Newport teachers Lisa Ferrigno and Melissa Mitchler, co-presidents of the Newport Teachers Association, spoke in favor of continuing to require masks as a way to keep students in school.

“I’m in my second round of COVID in my classroom,” said Ferrigno, a first-grade teacher. “I cannot get these kids caught up if they keep missing 20 days of school.”

For her part, Darling said that one of her children attends the district’s pre-kindergarten, which was closed for 10 days due to a spike in COVID-19 cases.

In her presentation, Helie said that when someone tests positive, their unvaccinated household members have to be quarantined for 10 days while that person is infectious. Then, should another family member test positive, they all have to continue to quarantine for an additional 10 days, delaying the time when students and school employees can return to school.

“One of my goals (is to) keep kids and staff in school,” she said.

The number of cases in Newport schools had decreased since the mask mandate took effect, Helie said. That requirement first went into place at the middle school on Sept. 16, following a spike in cases there, and then in the district’s other schools on Sept. 20, when they had three or more cases each. Later that week, the board voted, 3-1, to require masks in all schools through Oct. 14. It was that mandate that expired on Thursday.

In September, Newport schools had a total of 51 cases of COVID-19, Helie said. Of those, 38 were in students and 13 in staff. One of the employees had to be hospitalized.

The district had five clusters, groups of three or more related cases, including two in elementary school classrooms, a “bus situation,” and two in specific grade levels at the middle school, Helie said.

Only one of the people who tested positive had been vaccinated against COVID-19, she said. Just 48 percent of Newport residents have been fully vaccinated, which is well below the statewide average of 55 percent.

School board member Linda Wadensten said she is vaccinated and has had a booster shot, primarily to protect her 91-year-old father, a cancer survivor who lives with her. But she said she understands some people’s desire to make choices on masks and vaccines for themselves.

On Thursday, Wadensten joined Darling in opposing a districtwide mask mandate when transmission rates are substantial, but she said her views might change when students are spending more time inside. Medbery voted for it, and two board members were absent.

“What we had in place originally is fine,” Wadensten said, “until winter comes.”

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