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Despite months of debate, the issue of who should decide COVID policy remains tenuous and unresolved
By Jonathan Gerhardson
NORTHAMPTON — The Northampton School Committee remains divided on the issue of whether it should reserve the right to implement a mask mandate at schools if there is a spike in COVID-19 outbreaks. It has been a subject of ongoing debate since at least last March, and is unlikely to be resolved before tonight’s meeting of the School Committee.
Central to the debate is who should decide COVID policy for the Northampton schools. An Ad-Hoc committee, appointed to advise the city’s school committee, is deciding if the district should adopt guidance from the State’s Department of Education, or if Northampton should adopt a stricter policy that would allow school administrators to adopt universal masking if cases increase.
Here’s a brief timeline of events to catch you up to speed. This is not a strict chronology. Comments from officials were mostly made after the fact, and are included non-chronologically where relevant.
March 2022: The School Committee votes to approve the creation of a COVID-19 Ad Hoc Advisory Committee.
May 9, 2022: Northampton then-superintendent John Provost temporarily reinstated a mask mandate after cases in the district doubled in one week, and 37% of teachers had been absent the previous month. Some parents protested this decision. The School Committee ended the mandate two weeks later. The action appears to have been successful in slowing the spread of the virus and keeping schools open.
July 15, 2022: The COVID-19 Ad Hoc Advisory Committee held its first meeting.
It “got off to a rough start procedurally,” said School Committee member and Ad-Hoc liaison Michael Stein. Apparently, there was some confusion about the rules of open meeting law. Eventually, that got straightened out, and the Ad-Hoc advisory committee came to be composed of Stein, fellow School Committee member Kaia Goleman, and a team of experts hand-picked to advise the School Committee on policy making. These experts are:
Dr. Ian Goodman – E.R. Pediatrician
Dr. Casey Fein – Pediatrician
Dr. Steve Jones – Retired Associate Director for Science at the Center for Disease Control
Susan Rees – Nurse for Northampton Public Schools
Lisa Safron – Director of the Northampton Public Schools Health Department
Joshua Silver – Public Policy expert, founder of the nonprofit organizations Free Press and Represent.us
August 15, 2022: The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) released a Memorandum titled “Update on COVID-19 Matters in K-12 Schools for Fall 2022.” The ‘DESE memo’ announced that schools will not be provided state funding for any COVID-19 related matters, and outlines some recommendations meant to help guide school policies.
“The Commonwealth is not recommending universal mask requirements, surveillance testing of asymptomatic individuals, contact tracing, or test-to-stay testing in schools. Districts and schools are reminded that there is no longer any statewide masking mandate in schools,” the memo reads.
August 18, 2022: The most recent version of Northampton’s own COVID-19 policy, EBCFA: FACE MASKS AND FACE COVERING is approved.
Updated just 3 days after the DESE memo was released, EBCFA diverges from DESE in the amount of local control the School Committee and the Superintendent have over in-school public health measures. Called, sarcastically, the School Committe’s “favorite policy of all time” by Goleman, it allows for the Superintendent or School committee to implement universal indoor masking if Hampshire County’s risk level per the CDC is elevated to “high,” or if “school data indicates increased transmission and student and staff absenteeism will have a negative impact on student learning.”
Sept. 29, 2022: A special meeting of the COVID-19 Ad Hoc Committee is called for Oct. 3. According to Stein, the special meeting was called by the city’s legal team to allow the Ad-Hoc to meet prior to an Oct. 13 School Committee meeting, in order to address the fact that a part of Northampton’s current EBCFA policy was not being followed in schools. Specifically, the alleged noncompliance related to a section of the policy about notifying families and staff when there is a known exposure in school.
Oct. 3, 2022: The COVID-19 Ad Hoc Committee meets.
Kaia Goleman is elected chair of the Ad-Hoc committee. Stein and Fein are absent. On the agenda is the topic of the DESE memo’s guidelines, as well as a discussion about what circumstances should prompt schools to implement universal indoor masking. The ad hoc committee is expected to vote to make a recommendation to the School Committee about changes to the school’s COVID-19 policy.
Members of the COVID-19 Ad Hoc Advisory Committee were divided about whether they should look to the state or federal government for guidance on their policy recommendations. More than that, however, members were divided on what they were meeting about.
Proponents of the DESE memo’s recommendations want to incorporate the memo’s guidelines into Northampton’s policy. “DESE and DPH have continued to evolve [their] support for schools in collaboration with the medical community and in line with the most recent CDC guidance,” the memo reads.
“It’s important that DESE merged their guidelines with the formidable team of experts at the MA Dept of Health this summer,” Silver said. “We want our school committee to focus on hiring the superintendent and two principal positions that are vacant, and address the other myriad, pressing issues facing our schools. Setting COVID policy is exactly the kind of policy guidance that state and federal agencies are best designed to provide,” he added.
However, some members of the committee don’t believe the memo’s recommendations provide adequate protections and want to reserve the right for Northampton to implement universal indoor masking as it may deem necessary. It worked to reduce the spread of the virus last May, and they want to keep that option open in case there’s another surge or variant that starts causing increased illness and absence. They also point to the most recent CDC guidance to support their argument. Stein pointed out that while DESE claims their policy is in line with the CDC’s, the memo ignores the CDC’s guidance on masking in K-12 schools.
“K-12 schools or ECE programs may choose to implement universal indoor mask use to meet the needs of the families they serve, which could include people at risk for getting very sick with COVID-19,” the CDC’s recommendation says.
Stein, who was not present at the Oct. 3 meeting, told The Shoestring that he was concerned that failing to account for situations where the school might need to require universal indoor masking could also put the school system at risk of running afoul of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
In the meeting member Meg Robbins also expressed doubts about the process. “I just want to clarify, as a member of the School Committee, that the mandate to this committee was actually to assemble experts in epidemiology and in the health fields to advise us on specific parts of our existing policy. We actually didn’t ask this committee to tell us to adopt a different policy.” Robbins challenged the committee on why they had assembled the experts to advise on this issue and then chose not to take their advice. “I’m just going to say, I’m a little aggrieved that the two actual health experts, outside of our nursing staff, have advised us not to do this,” she said.
The Ad-Hoc committee ultimately voted 4-2, with two absent, to recommend incorporating the DESE language. The two doctors present, Goodman and Jones, voted against that recommendation. Masking was not discussed due to procedural issues: since the committee had already voted to recommend the DESE guidelines it was prevented from considering things in contradiction to those guidelines, according to School Committee clerk Annie Thompspon.
Oct 13, 2022: The School Committee meets.
Goleman delivered the Ad-Hoc committee’s recommendation, that “the Northampton public school policy going forward, should conform with all DESE guidelines, relevant to COVID-19 precautions, and that the language of those guidelines shall be included in the Northampton public schools.”
During public comment, Northampton resident Jeff Napolitano pleaded with the school committee to reject adopting those changes because “the policy of the CDC was conflated with that of DESE by a member with no public health or medical expertise. It was a false equivalence and one that was revealed by simply looking at both policies in the subcommittee’s last meeting, when there did seem to be an awareness that DESE’s guidance was far less protective for students than the [guidance of the] CDC,” Napolitano said, who later told The Shoestring he was referring to Josh Silver.
“So let me please remind everybody that Massachusetts is not a magical place protected from bad policy decisions,” he added.
Robbins echoed concerns that the committee was not accurately listening to experts and pushed back on Silver’s assertion that the School Committee shouldn’t make policy decisions. Speaking to Silver’s position, Robbins said, “I was a little gobsmacked. I thought we were creating an Ad-Hoc Advisory Committee of medical experts who would advise us on the best direction to safeguard our community and our children. And that is not what happened.”
Somewhere near the middle of the October 13th meeting, which lasted for seven hours, the School Committee ultimately voted to send the Ad-Hoc committee’s recommendation to the School Committee Rules and Policy Sub Committee for further review.
Oct. 14, 2022: The day after the meeting, committee member Silver appeared on the Bill Newman radio show and said:
Here in Northampton, there’s a small but very opinionated crew on the school committee that wants to actually create their own COVID 19 precautions and guidelines for the city of Northampton alone. And the problem with that . . . is that we do not have here in the city of Northampton nearly the kind of expertise in the way of virologists and epidemiologists to be able to do that well.
When The Shoestring pointed out that the committee had three doctors, one who served in a leadership role at the CDC for over 15 years, Silver clarified:
This is not a criticism of our local experts; merely acknowledgment that the inputs to state and federal agencies is far greater, more specialized and current.
No small or medium sized city has the scale and resources to reliably and optimally set complex policies related to a pandemic and its aftermath. That is why, according to DESE, the vast majority of school districts across our state are following their guidelines. Doing it locally is bad policymaking practice. Period.
Silver did not immediately respond to a follow up asking if his criticism about policymaking was towards the School Committee, or DESE, who despite having regulatory authority, did not pass specific statewide regulations on this matter.
Asked why DESE did not pass such regulation if its intention was not to delegate these decisions to municipalities, Jacqueline Reis, DESE Media Communications Director said, “The memo contains context for the guidance.”
Oct. 19, 2022: The Rules and Policy Subcommittee meets.
At that meeting, the subcommittee collaboratively edited a Google document, deleting language that would allow Northampton to independently implement universal indoor masking. The meeting adjourned after 90 minutes with no finalized language or a vote on it. The Shoestring has requested to review a draft of this policy, but that request was not granted by press time.
In general, a lack of reliable documentation about these proceedings, such as the minutes of meetings required by the Massachusetts Open Meeting Law has led to confusion even among committee members, and has impeded The Shoestring’s ability to succinctly report on this topic.
A records request for minutes from the last two years of School Committee meetings was not satisfactorily answered within the 10 day window provided for such requests, despite little explanation as to why this basic document that should be easily retrievable was unavailable.
The School Committee is scheduled todiscuss the revised policy at a meeting tonight. If and how they will vote remains to be seen. Stein told The Shoestring that he added a discussion of the role of the COVID-19 Ad Hoc Committee to the agenda and a legal memo from Springfield law firm Sullivan, Hayes, and Quinn dated Nov. 8. The School Committee is “not required to adopt the advisory opinions of the Covid-19 Ad Hoc Committee or a policy that only follows DESE guidance,” advised attorney Layla Taylor.
Jonathan Gerhardson is a writer and journalist living in western Massachusetts. Send news tips and inquiries to jon.gerhardson (at) proton.me.
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