Residents, councilors weigh in on optional mask policy in N.S. schools

Karen Flora speak before councilors.

NORTH SMITHFIELD – Residents who said they support the School Committee’s decision to let parents decide whether or not children should wear masks in school brought their case to members of the Town Council last week.

First reading of a revised district policy, making face coverings optional for all students regardless of their vaccination status, was passed as part of the board’s consent agenda during the last meeting in July.

“I really felt like many of our children suffered emotionally,” said Karen Flora of the mask requirement from the previous year.

Flora said her son, an 11th grader, was an honor roll student, among the top ten in his class prior to the pandemic.

“His grades started to fall when he went back to school,” Flora said, saying breathing and oxygen levels may have been to blame. “He knew the material.”

Flora said it wasn’t the only way the mask affected her son.

“He’s always been an extrovert – super joyful kid,” she said. “Last year, he got depressed, got anxious.”

Supt. Michael St. Jean noted last month that under current state guidance, decisions on masks fall to each district.

The revised policy, which still requires a second reading, was drafted by the district’s legal counsel and recommends masking, but does not mandate it.

“It is strongly recommended that all unvaccinated individuals wear a face covering when entering a district facility or attending school,” it states. “Anyone entering upon or attending school may wear a face covering to protect themselves.”

The policy notes that circumstances – or an order from health officials – could change that requirement.

“I was so pleased when I heard the decision, and so relieved,” said Flora. “It’s so important that everybody make their own decision.”

Councilor Stephen Corriveau read a letter from another parent who asked to remain anonymous out of concern that testimony could negatively affect their child’s relationships.

“We are adults that live in a free country, free to make decision for ourselves and our children,” the letter read. “Some may say that it is for the safety our children and residents, however I say that we a are adults are able to make our own decision.”

Track & Field coach Catherine Reyes said she also prefers if the students don’t have to wear masks.

“I just want to say that I’m in support of personal freedom,” Reyes said. “As a coach, I know that wearing masks was a really big problem – especially for my track runners.”

“I thought the craziest thing I ever saw was cross country runners running outside in the woods with a mask on,” agreed Councilor John Beauregard.

Corriveau said he supports the school board decision to make face coverings at the discretion of the parents.

“I myself don’t lean either way: vaccination/no vaccination, mask/non-mask,” Corriveau said. “It has affected them academically.”

Councilor Claire O’Hara said she’s also in favor of keeping masks optional.

“I feel students love continuity. They do well with continuity,” O’Hara said. “You can count on my support.”

The School Committee is expected to finalize the policy at their next meeting, scheduled to be held Tuesday, Aug. 17.

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