At a special meeting last week, the School Committee approved a change to the district’s mask policy so it will no longer have to issue a mask mandate when Suffolk County is designated as a high-risk county for Covid-19.
Several weeks ago, the designation triggered a one-week mask mandate in the district, which led to chaos and a lack of compliance, according to school administrators. In addition to some confusion in the schools, administrators were flooded with emails and complaints, many from outside the district, complaining about the policy.
Chelsea was the only community in the state to enact the most recent mask mandate.
The new policy will no longer call for a mask mandate, but rather, the district will issue a high-risk warning highly recommending students and staff wear masks when it is determined there is a high risk for Covid-19 transmission.
During the meeting, assistant superintendent Adam Deleidi presented both data on the recent Covid wave and anecdotal evidence about the latest one-week mask mandate. Deleidi noted that peak numbers for Covid cases in December of 2022 were about half of that from the peak numbers in January of that year.
“The recent December uptick is about half of the peak from last year,” he said. “In general, cases peak around the Thanksgiving and December breaks, perhaps indicating that the spread is more prevalent outside of school.”
Another thing to consider, Deleidi told the committee, is that in virtually all areas outside the schools, there is no mask mandate.
“The thing to think about is that mandating in one school district has limited efficiency,” he said.
Deleidi said he does believe masks are effective in minimizing the spread of Covid, but added the most recent mini-mandate in the schools was a logistical nightmare.
“It causes a lot of confusion, and it is certainly hard to enforce,” he said.
There were many students who said they respectfully did not want to wear the masks, creating a challenge for teachers and administrators.
School Committee member Roberto Jimenez Rivera said that under the current system, it takes a significant number of covid cases for the risk level to get to high.
“If we are getting to high, then there is a lot of Covid in the air,” said Jimenez Rivera. “We should do everything in our power to reduce the spread so it doesn’t affect our community.”
He said he was especially concerned about Covid having a big impact on staff attendance.
“There are districts that are having a lot of their staff be out with outbreaks of Covid,” Jimenez Rivera said. “I worry that could happen, so for that reason, when it gets to the level of high, there is a benefit to having a masking policy and even a mask mandate.”
Even if there is not 100 percent compliance, he said that there would be a higher percentage of students and staff wearing masks if there was a mandate than if there wasn’t.
“We’re kind of the odd district out, but I think we are the ones who are doing it right,” said Jimenez Rivera. “I think every district should be doing what we are doing and making sure we are reducing the spread not just in Chelsea, but everywhere.”
Committee member Naomi Zabot asked if a change in the policy was being considered because of the number of people who expressed opposition to it recently.
“The reason we are looking at this is because the policy was voted on back in April, and so it was a different time in April,” said Abeyta.
The superintendent noted that while there has been some loud pushback from mask opponents who have no connection to Chelsea, there was also pushback from staff and students in the district.
“Oftentimes, we don’t hear from the people who disagree but don’t say anything,” said Abeyta, adding she heard from a number of teachers asking why Chelsea enacted a mask mandate when no other district in the state did.
“Shifting back and forth causes a lot of unnecessary chaos in the schools,” Abeyta said.
Jimenez Rivera asked if there was a way to keep a mask mandate for staff but not students to help prevent excessive staff absences during high risk phases. He also suggested that the schools use more proactive wastewater sampling numbers to help determine when a mask mandate or advisory should go into effect.
Committee member Ana Hernandez asked if the district might consider a more consistent mask mandate around the time after holiday breaks, when the case numbers typically peak.
School Committee member Claryangeliz Covas Carballo said there should not be one mask standard for staff and another for students. The committee voted 6-1-2 to change the masking policy language to enact a warning rather than a mask mandate when Covid levels are high. Jimenez Rivera voted against the change in language, and committee members Jeanette Velez and Yessenia Alfaro were absent.