Almost two years to the day after schools shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Watertown students will be able to go to class without wearing a face mask.
Monday night, the School Committee approved Superintendent Dede Galdston’s plan to make masks optional and a set of metrics to decide if they will be required in the future.
Galston noted that March 13, 2020 was the date that school in Massachusetts closed in the beginning of the Pandemic, and two years later students will be able to choose not to wear a mask. She also stressed that teachers and staff will emphasize that students will be respected and accepted regardless of whether or not they choose to wear a face mask.
The change in mask rules will be finalized this week, Galdston said, after the latest student and staff testing results are received. She said she will send out an announcement to the Watertown Public Schools community.
School Committee Chair Kendra Foley thanked Galdston and her staff for the work they have done during the pandemic.
“She has brought us through these two years and continues to do so with grace. I appreciate your thoughtfulness and guidance. And I appreciate that we had mitigation strategies that have had a lot of success,” Foley said. “I am also really happy to see change as we see improvement on the ground and be able to respond to them by making masks optional. We are not at the end of the road, we are at one fork in the road and I’m really excited to take it. It is important to do what’s best for our students.”
The School Committee unanimously supported the proposal. Parents and community members who spoke during the meeting, and a majority supported removing the mask requirement. School Committee member Lindsay Mosca noted that she and others on the Committee have received emails from and spoke to many people who oppose lifting the requirement.
City Council President Mark Sideris, who also serves on the School Committee, said he has had a similar experience.
“I agree, half the people will not like what we do tonight and half the people will agree,” Sideris said. “It’s a balance. We have to strike a balance.”
The adjustment may be difficult for many students, said School Committee member David Stokes. He experienced it himself when his office removed its mask requirement a week ago.
“I had that anxiety: the first cough, first sneezes, whether or not to shake hands,” Stokes said. “Resocialization is a big thing.”
He also noted that the Watertown Board of Health removed the indoor face mask mandate in the City on Feb. 24.
“It feels odd going into a building like a school where you have to wear a mask, when you don’t have to go into CVS, the library or City Hall wearing a mask,” Stokes said. “The Board of Health would not have lifted that requirement in the rest of Watertown if they didn’t think it was safe.”
As mask requirements are eased, Galdston said there are still some who remain at risk.
“We have to take care of our vulnerable student and staff populations so we will work with them to provide reasonable accommodations to make sure we provide them when needed,” Galdston said.
Students who are immunocompromised should discuss mask wearing and appropriate accommodations with their medical provider, Galdston said. Any requests for accommodations above personal mask wearing should be sent to the Director of Student Services Kathy Desmarais at 617-926-7766 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The request will be reviewed.
The numbers of COVID cases in the Watertown Schools, and in the City, are down, but if the trend changes, Galdston presented a set of metrics to guide when masks may be required in school again.
The metrics are broken into three categories: low, medium and high. Galdston said, generally, masks will remain optional when the metrics are low or medium, but a facemask requirement would return under high.
The first metric is one recently released by the CDC, which looks at the COVID rates in the community. Low would be 0 to 9.9 cases per 100,000 people over the past 14 days, medium is 10 to 49.9 per 100,000 and high would be 50 and above. Currently, Watertown is medium, at 11.9 cases per 100,000.
Another metric will be positive test rates. Low is less than 5 percent, medium is 5 percent to 7.9 percent, and high is 8 percent or higher. Watertown is low right now, with a 1.55 percent positive test rate.
The number of cases in a classroom or school will also be a metric. Galdston explained that one case in a school would not trigger a decision about mask wearing.
“If we have multiple cases within one building then we would need to start considering whether we need a mask,” Galdston said.
If there are no more than two cases in a class, or three classrooms in an elementary school, then the mask requirement would be looked at but not required. Same with no more than 2 percent of the students and staff at the middle school or high school.
When there are more than two cases in a classroom or more than three classrooms at an elementary school, or more than 2 percent of the student/staff population at WMS or WHS, that would trigger putting a mask requirement in place because it suggests there is community transmission within schools.
See the Superintendent’s memo to the School Committee on the face mask metrics by clicking here.