Burrillville parents, school board members, question mask mandate amid heat wave

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BURRILLVILLE ā€“ Noting that 68 percent of parents report impairments in their children due to wearing masks that include everything from fatigue to joylessness in a survey on the issue, a group is calling on town officials to end the mandate requiring students to wear them.

In response, members of the Burrillville School Committee and administrators say they sympathize with students who have been required to wear masks through temperatures toping 100 degrees over the past week. But they say the district must continue to follow guidance on the issue provided by the Rhode Island Department of Health.

“I do agree that there seems to be some inconsistencies with mask mandates and mask guidance from the state,” said Supt. Michael Sollitto at a committee meeting on Tuesday, June 8. “Our policy that we adopted early in the school year is to follow the Department of Health guidelines. If we did not follow the DOH guidelines, first off we’d be violating our own policy and secondly we’d be opening the district up to an enormous liability if there were to be a breakout at a particular school.”

Councilors, meanwhile, voted to take a stand on the issue, and work with School Committee members to petition the DOH for relief from the mask mandate, an option Sollitto said he believes the board will be open to.

The discussion followed correspondence from several parents concerned about the mask mandate, as well as a petition with more than 200 signatures including many Burrillville parents.

“We now have the option to protect those at risk without punishing those who are not at risk,” noted a presentation with the petition, pointing out that vaccines are now widely available. “The current mask mandate should be abolished immediately, with bans placed on any future mandates.”

The group presented their case to members of the Town Council on Wednesday, but councilors noted that the issue more appropriately falls to the school board. School Board members noted Tuesday, however, that the issue should actually be brought before the state legislature, along with the DOH.

“While we do have a contingent of parents that seem to want to unmask students against the Department. of Health guidelines, we also have lots of parents who want to remain following the guidelines and I think would be very upset if we decided to change our policy at this point,” Sollitto said.

Several School Committee members said they agree with the group.

“I feel like we’re almost doing a disservice to students at this point because they’re not a population that has ever really demonstrated the type of concern that we should have,” said Committee member Donison Allen. “We’ve seen it -kids are becoming ill.”

“The governor’s executive orders have long since passed the standard of emergency declaration I think by any rational normal person thinking clearly,” said Allen. “To say that we’re in a state of emergency that would require the rest of the government to stand down for these types of decisions is truly unfortunate.”

“We’re dealing with a year and a half now,” he added. “Other states have just gone back to business as usual and suffered no consequences Shame on the General Assembly for not stepping up and addressing some of these issues.”

Committee member Victor Bevilacqua noted that as the parent of an elementary school student, he understands the complaints.

“Today was so hot in the classrooms that the teacher was literally spraying them with a spray bottle every ten minutes,” Bevilacqua said. Getting off the bus, he added, “My wife said it looked like they just ran a marathon.”

“I’m in favor of doing away with the masks, but there’s nothing I can do about that because if it’s a state mandate we have to go with that,” said Bevilacqua.

Bevilacqua asked who would be liable if a kid were to pass out.

Committee member Terri Lacey spoke in favor of continuing to follow guidance from the Centers of Disease Control.

“I don’t think there’s any question that nobody like to see the kids walking around with masks on in 100 degree weather, but I think it’s important that we still stick with the guidelines of the CDC,” Lacey said. “The school department has done a great job with following protocol and following the CDC guidelines.”

The parent group the Burrillville Moms Against Mandates presented the case to the Town Council.

“With a less than one percent risk of contracting COVID-19 at their age group, there is a much higher risk of negative affect from mask wearing,” said parent Kristin Grainey. “These last few days have really shown the truth to it: they have been brutally hot and our children have suffered more than they ever should have.”

Town Manager Michael Wood told the group, “You guys have made a wonderful job of making a case and supporting a case. I support what you’re saying. I understand what you’re saying. You’re right. There are different parts of the country handling this differently.”

Still, he noted, the School Department has made a solid decision in following the guidelines.

“We all have to be careful,” Wood said. “We have 17,000 people we have to protect.”

Committee Chairwoman Alexandra LeClaire agreed that with only a few days left to school and the hot weather set to break, the district is obligated to follow state mandate and state policy.

Sollitto noted that, “mask breaks,” have been in place at the school, where students can go outside, and that he informed parents that students could opt for virtual learning during one particularly hot day.

“The message really needs to go to the Department of Health,” said Sollitto. “Some of us agree with what they’re saying, but that decision is really out of our control. I empathize with parents who are seeing their little ones in masks all day all throughout the school year, but at this point, we really don’t have the option of not following the Department of Health guidelines.”

Sollitto noted that state officials have indicated the mandate is not likely to change before the end of the school year, but if it did, “We’d all welcome that.”

“They’re making decisions based on science we have to follow their lead,” said Sollitto.

Bevilaqua recommended that those concerned also reach out to state representatives.

“They’ve stood down long enough,” he said.

Councilors voted unanimously to draft a resolution asking the DOH as well as the Rhode Island Department of Education, to make the mask mandate optional for both teachers and students, and include the materials provided by the parent group. The resolution will include an exemption form to be drafted with help from the School Committee, and will be shared with other cities and towns in the state requesting support.

Editor’s note: The above article has been edited from its original version to add dialog from the Town Council meeting.

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