GREAT BARRINGTON — When the Berkshire Hills Regional School District opens its door for the new school year later this month, masks must be worn inside its schools and faculty and staff must be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Sept. 15, the school committee voted last night. The mask mandate will pertain regardless of vaccination status.
“It’s pretty clear that the Delta variant is out and about in Berkshire County,” Superintendent Peter Dillon told the school committee at a special meeting last night.
Guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Diseases Control state that if a community had an infection rate of 50 persons out of 100,000, then “that community should look at a range of additional mitigation strategies,” Dillon said, adding that Berkshire County’s rate was 108 per 100,000 last week. The superintendent also cast a mask mandate as a way of helping realize the goal of the schools staying open for in-person learning.
See video below of last night’s special meeting of the Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee:
“Students do better in school than remotely, or some other context,” Dillon explained. “I would like to do everything in my, or our, collective ability to keep school open in person.”
Dillon had recently received a policy update on face coverings from the Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC) and included some of its language in drafting a policy for Berkshire Hills.
The CDC, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, and the state Department of Public Health have recommended that face coverings be worn in school buildings and on school grounds.
“While each agency strongly recommends the wearing of masks, each stopped short of requiring them,” MASC said. “This has forced local school committees to make the determination.”
School Committee member Bill Fields of Great Barrington said he thought the district already had a similar masking policy in place. He wondered if last night’s vote to require masks was “redundant.”
“It probably is redundant, but we want to be very clear to everyone,” replied school committee chair Steve Bannon. “This allows us to be very clear on our procedures.”
With cases on the rise, the Great Barrington Board of Health last week voted unanimously to issue a new indoor masking advisory — also regardless of vaccination status.
Exceptions to the Berkshire Hills policy can be obtained under certain circumstances. For example, students with medical, behavioral or other challenges who are unable to wear masks may obtain an exemption, but it must be approved by the building principal in consultation with the school nurse or Board of Health. Bandanas and gaiters will not be permitted as face coverings.
Face shields or physical barriers may provide an alternative in some instances and “This approach may change over time based on shifting data and external additional guidance,” the adopted policy said. Click here to read it.
The school committee also voted unanimously on a motion from Rich Dohoney to require all staff in the district to be vaccinated against the virus by Sept. 15. Employees may request a specific exemption, in writing, for medical reasons.
“Medical exemptions must be supported by documentation from a medical provider and approved by the school nurse and Superintendent,” the policy states. “Individuals may request exemptions, in writing, for religious reasons that must be reviewed and approved by both the Superintendent and the BHRSD legal counsel.”
Dillon said he believes that more than 94% of his staff is already vaccinated. The small number of unvaccinated staff — he said you could probably count them on two hands — are likely unvaccinated for reasons that “potentially could be addressed through the exemption process.”
“This is going to impact a very small number of people,” Dillon said, adding that the new policy would likely be subject to collective bargaining with the unions.
Dohoney said he would also like to discuss a vaccine requirement for students at the committee’s next meeting.