Burrillville school board takes first vote to change policy on face coverings

Parents speak before members of the Burrillville School Committee.

BURRILLVILLE – Following guidance from Gov. Dan McKee, the Burrillville School District is working to change a policy requiring all students to wear face coverings in school buildings, just as advocates were prepared to speak out on the issue and make their case for taking a stand against the statewide mandate.

Supt. Michael Sollitto recommended the change to members of the Burrillville School Committee on Tuesday, July 13, and the board gave first reading to a policy that would make face masks optional when students return in the fall.

“If you’re unvaccinated we’re recommending you wear a face covering, but it falls short of requiring it” Sollitto said of the new proposed policy. “If there are any changes in that future that mandate the wearing of masks, we’d have to change it.”

Face coverings will still be required on buses due to a federal order regarding public transit, the superintendent said.

“We don’t have any wiggle room with that,” said Sollitto.

The change follows calls from a parent group to change the requirement that began in June. Members of the group Burrillville Moms Against Mandates appeared before the Town Council last month, asking town officials to take action, and ultimately convincing councilors to work with Sollitto on a letter to the Rhode Island Department of Health requesting face masks become optional.

“I believe it should be the choice of the parents,” said resident Michael LeBlanc. “We have been dealing with this pandemic and all of these restrictions for long enough.”

Amanda Knight, a former health care strategy consultant, said that there have been very few studies of the effects of mask wearing on children – and limited data supporting policies put in place requiring students to wear masks over the past year and a half.

“I’m very well-versed in understanding evidence,” said Knight. “There is data to say that there are some serious short-term effects.”

“I think it’s going in the right direction from my unbiased, clinical and economic perspective,” she said of the changes.

The proposed policy states that, “It is strongly recommended that all unvaccinated individuals wear a face covering when entering a district facility or attending school.”

“Anyone entering upon or attending school may wear a face covering to protect themselves,” the policy notes.

School Committee members had mixed reactions on the issue, ultimately approving the first reading in a 5-2 vote. The change will come back before the board for a second reading at the next meeting scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 17.

“The face covering – with the spread of the virus – I think is very important,” said member Dot Cardon. “The variants that are going around are spreading quickly, and I do not want to see anyone else sick of Covid of any kind.”

Member Donison Allen voted against the change, but noted that his vote was a statement against codifying an ongoing emergency executive order that he believes is unconstitutional.

“My position on this hasn’t changed much,” Allen said. “I think it’s nice that it’s softened. I just feel it’s not our place to be involved with that.”

Resident Kristin Grainey said she’s concerned about students being treated differently based on their decision not to wear a mask.

Committee member Terri Lacey responded, “We don’t want any child made to feel different whether they’re wearing a mask or they’re not wearing a mask.”

“Let’s encourage our kids together to be supportive of one another,” Lacey said.

Sollitto said the district’s move follows McKee’s announcement in late June that when full-time in-person learning resumes in the fall, face coverings will not be required for fully vaccinated students. He said similar policy changes are expected in other Rhode Island schools.

“Distance learning is not an option next year. All students are back to school five days a week,” Sollitto said.

“I think it’s important for the committee to have a policy,” he added. “It may not change the way people are acting.”

The superintendent said that so far, there’s no indication that masks will be required for athletics.

“If anything needs to change within this policy we will do it,” said School Committee Chairperson Alexandra LeClair “It’s not set in stone.”

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