WOODSVILLE — Avery Robinson, now 6, has worn a mask to medical appointments at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, in city subways and in most crowded places since she was 1.
Avery has cystic fibrosis, an inherited disorder that causes severe damage to the lungs and affects cells that produce mucus, putting her at greater risk of serious illness should she contract a virus.
“She has to be very careful just in general,” said Dave Robinson, her father. Even a cold can make her seriously ill, he said.
Avery, a 1st grader at Woodsville Elementary School, started the school year wearing a mask, as she, her classmates and school employees did last year to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Most of the teachers at the school and several of Avery’s classmates also wore masks this week.
But doing so this year is a choice. The state no longer requires masks in schools, leaving it up to local school boards to decide whether to require them.
At a recent meeting, the Haverhill School Board, which oversees the town’s three schools, was tied, 3-3, with one board member absent, on whether to require masks now that transmission levels are deemed “high” in Grafton County and around the state. Parents and school staff spoke on both sides of the issue. As a result, the board left masks optional, at least for now. It is scheduled to meet again on Sept. 13.
Some parents of Haverhill children such as Avery who are medically vulnerable to infections such as COVID-19 are disappointed in the school board’s decision. Federal and state health officials recommend masks in schools at this point, as do various health-care organizations, including the Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth-Hitchcock in Lebanon, where Avery receives her care.
Jamie Riley, who has two children in the Haverhill Cooperative Middle School and one at Woodsville High School, initially “broke down and fell apart after the school board meeting” last week.
After that, she sat down and sent an email to special education officials at the district asking that employees who have direct contact with her son Andrew, who is 14 and in 8th grade, wear masks.
Andrew, who has a severe form of epilepsy called Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, cannot wear a mask for medical reasons. Though he has had both shots of a COVID-19 vaccine, Riley said he is still likely to become seriously ill should he contract the virus.
He is on a feeding tube and can’t manage his own secretions, so when he gets sick, he requires medical intervention, Riley said.
Since Andrew returned to school last September, he has been learning in the school’s former home economics classroom apart from other children at Riley’s request to protect him from the virus. It is not possible for Andrew, who has a low cognitive level and is nonverbal, partially deaf and visually impaired, to learn from home, she said.
In spite of Riley’s request that all of the school employees who work with him wear a mask, there is still one worker who has declined to do so, she said. Riley said school officials have told her that they cannot require that the worker wear a mask and have not yet responded to her request that the worker be swapped with someone else. She is waiting to hear if her only alternative is to keep Andrew at home.
“It’s not OK,” she said. “… I think people see him as expendable.”
In response to questions about the district’s response to Riley’s mask request, Jessica Piccone-Robie, the district’s director of special education, said confidentiality rules bar her from disclosing “any specific special education student information.”
Like the Rileys, the lack of a mask mandate did not deter Dave and Ashlee Robinson from sending Avery and their 3-year-old daughter Sadie to school. They have the option of pulling Avery out of in-person instruction if they feel it’s necessary to do so for her health, but they want her to have the opportunity to be with her teachers and classmates in person.
As parents of a child with cystic fibrosis, the Robinsons acknowledge that they always need to take more precautions than families without a medically vulnerable child. But “these are different times right now,” Dave Robinson said.
He said that he doesn’t expect the board to require masks in schools forever, just until younger children like his can be vaccinated against COVID-19. At this point, COVID-19 vaccines have been authorized only for those 12 and older.
“I think the decision was the wrong one,” he said of the board’s vote to make masks optional. “I think health is the first and foremost thing.”
Still, Robinson was encouraged to see that most of the teachers and many of Avery’s classmates had chosen to wear masks on the first day of school when he dropped her off.
“That made me feel really good,” he said.
In response to a parent, Aaron Palm, who spoke at the board meeting about masks making it difficult for her daughter, who is hard of hearing, to understand what people are saying, Robinson said he has ordered see-through masks for all of the teachers at Woodsville Elementary School.
“I felt for her, too,” Robinson said. “There are options out there that can accommodate both.”
Reached by email, Palm — who has one child at the middle school and two in the elementary school, drives a school bus for the district and is a real estate agent — said she was glad that the board opted to keep masks optional but said that her daughter, who is in second grade, doesn’t benefit if her teachers opt to wear masks.
The masks make it difficult for Palm’s daughter, who is scheduled to be tested for an auditory processing disorder in November, to understand who is speaking. She relies on lip-reading to help her understand what people are saying.
Palm, who home-schooled her children last year, said she is concerned that her daughter will fall behind academically as a result of the masks making it difficult for her to understand what’s going on in school.
She was glad to hear that Robinson had purchased see-through masks for the teachers, as she was thinking of doing the same thing herself. “I pray they wear them, as I do believe that would help the situation for all the children, regardless if they have any issues or not,” Palm said.
Because masks are required on all buses under federal rules, Palm finds herself issuing daily reminders to children about wearing them and pulling them up over their noses. But she doesn’t support their use.
“I will continue to advocate for no masks, regardless of how bad it gets,” she said.
Haverhill School Board Chairman Richard Guy, in an email this week, sought to distance himself from the board’s decision.
A retired EMS director who is active in area vaccination efforts, Guy said he supports indoor masking for younger students.
The board’s decision was affected by a recent survey of parents that showed 58 percent preferred students to be unmasked indoors, as well as by what Guy called “compelling testimony” from the public on both sides at the meeting. Still, Guy said the superintendent is authorized to take any steps necessary to respond to cases of COVID-19 in the schools.
SAU 23, which includes Haverhill schools, includes some schools that opened with mandatory masks and others with masks optional, Superintendent Laurie Melanson said. “This is a very emotionally charged topic in our SAU and across the state and nation,” she said.