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School Officials Seek Balance on Masking Requirements

Montpelier Roxbury Public Schools Superintendent Libby Bonesteel provided COVID-19 tests at Main Street Middle School last year. Mask mandates are now being lifted at Montpelier schools because of the high vaccination rates. Photo by Jess Dewes.

School Officials Seek Balance on Masking Requirements

‘To mask, or not to mask,’ remained the question of the evening as a high school student and several parents voiced their concerns during the public comments period that opened Wednesday’s regular meeting of the Montpelier Roxbury School District Board.

In her Feb. 15 letter to school families, Superintendent Libby Bonesteel wrote: 

“I recognize that this could potentially be a charged issue.” The concerns raised at the meeting indicate that making masks at school a choice when students return in March will remain challenging. Moreover, while the three Montpelier public schools have achieved the qualifying 80% vaccination rate, Roxbury Village School, at 66% vaccinated, remains short of the mark required for unmasking.

Statements at the meeting reflected a range of opinions and concerns. An email from Jo Linda Burton was read to the board. Burton, who has children in kindergarten and second grade, found Bonesteel’s letter “confusing and potentially divisive.” She encouraged the board to consider a “balanced transition” that could include initially removing masks outside, then at lunch. She also noted her understanding that masks impose physical and psychological challenges for students when speaking, hearing others who are masked, and being unable to read facial expressions.

Joel Dennison, who has three children in school, two of whom have special needs, spoke in support of personal choice regarding masks. “We will never live in a world without managed risk. We still climb trees, take our kids on hikes in the woods. We still ski and sled and snowboard,” he said. “Kids deserve to smile and be seen — and we deserve leadership in the school that does not frame us as ‘uncaring adults,’” he added.

Lisa Earle-Centers, who has worked as a teacher for the past 20 years, emphasized the importance of unmasking for communication between students and teachers. She also was encouraged that what it means to be “caring” be broadened from what she took to be a one-sided view in Bonesteel’s letter. Knowing of two students who were at risk of suicide during the pandemic mandates, she believes that facial expression is critical to expressing care for others. When teaching, she said, “My smile has always been my most important tool.”

Earle-Centers did caution that “We need to be prepared for an uptick in cases when we come back from vacation. There’s always an uptick after vacations, and it’s not to be blamed on unmasking.”

Lincoln Earle-Centers added that continuing the mask mandate for younger children who have not been eligible for vaccination and those at the Roxbury Village School is wrongly coercive when the developmental effects of masking are worse than the minor risks of the virus. Regarding the vaccination requirement, he said. “Everybody has heard the arguments for this mitigation, and if they are choosing not to do it, then they shouldn’t be penalized,” he said.

Alex Brush, a 10th grader at Montpelier High School (MHS) said that initially they hadn’t planned to speak, but after reading the superintendent’s letter said: “I live with my grandparents who are immunocompromised, as well as my high-risk stepfather, and I directly oppose lifting the mandate. I know that this comes from the state and not directly from the school board, but I hope you will exercise caution.” Brush remains concerned that lifting the mandate will allow the virus to continue to spread.

Ethan Parke, who has a daughter in third grade at Union Elementary School, affirmed his agreement with the previous speakers who favored ending the mask mandate, but added that he while he knows there has been some friction around the framing of Libby Bonesteel’s email, he “appreciates the superintendent’s courage in taking this position. And it’s a position that appears to be in line with the governor, the health commissioner, and the secretary of education.”

What Does Lifting This Mandate Mean?

  • Union Elementary School, Main Street Middle School, and Montpelier High School are above 80% vaccinated. The district cannot enforce a mask mandate after Feb. 28 in these three buildings.
  • Roxbury Village School has a 66% vaccination rate. For the time being, all students and staff at the Roxbury school will remain masked. Masks will be optional for students while playing outside at Roxbury Village School.
  • The children in our Pre-K classrooms at Union Elementary and Roxbury will remain masked because the majority of the students in these classrooms are not old enough to be vaccinated. Masks will be optional for students while playing outside.
  • Any student or staff member who tests positive for COVID-19 will be required to wear a mask in all of our school buildings through day 10 of their diagnosis.
  • Any student or staff member who exhibits symptoms of COVID-19 must stay home from school. This has not changed.
  • At this time, we do not have clarity on what this means regarding extra-curricular activities (e.g., sports, music, theater, clubs) and spectators.
    — Superintendent Libby Bonesteel, letter to MRPS community, February 15, 2022