In a multistep vote the Woodbridge Board of Education did reach consensus on the question of when to drop the mask mandate for folks in the building. Masks are no longer required, but are a choice going forward, with the board members compromising on the effective date.
In a special meeting on February 23 dedicated to the question of masking, School Supt. Dr. Jonathan Budd had asked the board to keep the mask policy in place for a few extra days after the state and the local mandate had been lifted on February 28, for a variety of reasons. Dr. Budd said he wanted to use an upcoming faculty meeting to communicate with teachers on implementing the shift, and possibly to communicate with families. Some parents had already reached out to the administration, asking for more information to make an informed decision for their child. Rather than dropping the mask mandate at the first possible moment – March 1 – more communication would allow for a stronger collaboration, he said.
After two unsuccessful attempts at a vote, the board finally agreed to drop the mask mandate effective Monday, March 7. However, students will be required to continue wearing masks on the school bus until at least March 18.
The one-week delay in suspending the mask policy also allowed the district to distribute a Covid test kit to each child and each adult, asking everyone to test for the virus before they enter the building the morning of March 7. The idea is “to make sure we are entering the new phase successfully,” Dr. Budd said. Even so, the district relied on the “honor system,” expecting people to act responsibly when they test positive and stay home.
Prior to the February 23 board meeting, the district had sent out a survey to both parents and teachers to determine which preferences prevailed. Kris Hart Rooney, a Multi Age Group teacher, presented the survey results. She said 586 parents and 99 staff members responded, with remarkably similar results. Forty-two percent of the parents and 44% of the teachers felt confident to do away with the masks as of March 1; 29% (24%) favored holding off until the end of the school year and 16% (10%) wanted to wait until after spring break.
The survey also inquired about the vaccination status as one important factor in determining the vulnerability of the community. Ninety-nine percent of staff at the school are fully vaccinated and 68% of K-6 students are as well. As for the community at large, 85.6% of the Woodbridge residents were reported fully vaccinated, 7.42% partially vaccinated.
Dr. Budd said a number of other Covid mitigation strategies would be lifted gradually, provided the numbers continue to trend in the right direction. Among those strategies are quarantining and contact tracing; “cohorting” at recess and allowing several grades to eat lunch in the cafeteria simultaneously, rather than the current two. In fact, one parent felt these strategies to be more ill-advised than the masks. In a letter to the board, she noted that students are allowed to watch movies during lunch in order to keep them quiet while the masks are off. And the practice to keep classes apart during recess in an effort to prevent the virus from spreading between cohorts often results in kids not having adequate outdoor time, she wrote in a letter to the board.
As the numbers continue to decrease the district will drop social distancing in classrooms and return to more conventional interactions, Dr. Budd said, and finally, reduce or do away with restriction on assemblies and field trips; restrictions on band/chorus; and restriction on visitors in the building.
The discussion among board members was overall respectful, although passions did flare up on occasion. The first vote was whether to suspend or eliminate existing mask policies. Brooke Hopkins, Sarah Beth DelPrete and Jeff Hughes supported eliminating the policies at the earliest date possible. Board Chairwoman Lynn Piascyk said, “I don’t think it is an unreasonable request [to wait until March 7],” and voted against the motion, together with Maria Madonick, Michael Strambler, Erin Williamson and Jay Dahya.
Maria Madonick then introduced a motion to suspend the policies effective March 18, with the stipulation that the administration work out a metric that would trigger the board to consider reinstating the mask mandate should the district face a future surge.
Jeff Hughes argued against, pointing out that most other districts in our area – including Amity – were instituting mask choice.
This vote ended in a 4-4 tie, with Piascyk joining the no-vote. Piascyk then motioned to suspend the policies effective March 7, and the motion again failed, 4-4.
The board members finally rallied, unanimously suspending the mask policies as of March 7, with the addendum that the district “devise a data-based metric to provide thresholds of risk that will convene a meeting of the Woodbridge Board of Education to discuss potential reinstatement of the policies should the district face a future surge.”
By Bettina Thiel – Woodbridge Town News Correspondent