The Recorder – Greenfield school board meeting stalled by residents’ refusal to wear masks
GREENFIELD — An in-person school committee meeting scheduled to discuss the Greenfield School Department’s mask policy and to review the superintendent’s proposed budget barely made it past the public comment portion on Tuesday evening, following the refusal of several residents to wear masks when meeting in the Cafeteria at Greenfield High School.
After public comments closed, the meeting was adjourned on the advice of legal counsel, according to chair Amy Proietti. A remote meeting has since been posted on March 3 at 7:30 p.m. to discuss the mask policy. The budget discussion will take place at a later date.
Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) Commissioner Jeffrey Riley announced last month that the statewide mask requirement would be lifted on February 28, when local school districts would have the power to develop their own policies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also relaxed its guidelines for wearing masks on school buses, although they are still mandatory on other modes of public transportation.
“Many mask mandates were lifted across the Commonwealth – across the country – and the town of Greenfield chose to lift their mandate on the Friday before we went on hiatus … timing which was appalling and led to a lot of confusion,” Proietti explained at the start of Tuesday’s meeting. “It’s a pity that it happened like this, without any collaboration with the school committee.”
Under current district policy, all people inside school buildings must wear face coverings and adults must continue to wear masks outside if social distancing cannot be maintained. Outside – whether for recess, physical education, youth sports or an outdoor learning environment – students are not required to wear face coverings.
However, several members of the public, including Precinct 7 Councilman Jasper Lapienski, refused to wear a mask despite repeated reminders of school policy. Participants were reminded that they must wear a mask as per policy if they wish to make a public comment.
The only person who officially spoke to the school committee about the masking was Brendan Leowolf, a film studies teacher at Greenfield High School.
“My job has been made really, really difficult by some of the policies put in place, despite your best intentions to do the best you can with the knowledge you have,” said Leowolf, who said he spoke on behalf of his “neighbours. “Teaching from a distance was nonsense. Teaching with a mask on all day was so hard and made me not want to be a teacher.”
He said COVID-19 has become rampant, and something “we’re going to deal with forever”.
“We don’t need to wear masks forever,” Leowolf said. “We’re told they’re preventing the spread of COVID, which is generally untrue.”
The CDC has recommended the use of masks, citing at least 10 studies that have confirmed their benefits as a tool for reducing viral transmission. He also noted shortcomings in two studies that yielded results that showed cloth and surgical masks offered no benefit.
Following Leowolf’s remarks, several attempts were made by unmasked individuals to approach the committee, resulting in a clash between the audience and the committee that ultimately ended the meeting.
Prior to the public comment period, Superintendent Christine DeBarge provided the committee with the results of a survey of staff members regarding what they would like to see move forward. As for masks, 42% felt that they should no longer be compulsory; 39% said they would feel more comfortable waiting to lift the mandate until after the February recess; and 19% said they would prefer to continue wearing masks.
When asked about mitigation strategies, 31% said they would like all mitigation strategies to remain in place; 16% said they would like all mitigation strategies lifted as long as a mask policy remains in place; 32% said all pandemic rules should be lifted; and finally, 20% said some mitigation strategies should be lifted while others remain in place.
Greenfield Health Director Jennifer Hoffman and Public Health Nurse Meghan Tudryn were asked to provide the school committee with an update on COVID-19 cases and protocols.
Tudryn reported that in February the city had 232 cases of COVID-19, compared to 53 cases in February 2021.
“I don’t really have a strong opinion on how you’re going with this, but I just want you to have all the data,” Tudryn said. “Our cases are still very high compared to last year.”
Glenn Johnson-Mussad, a school board member, demanded an explanation for the CDC’s recommendation to relax mask mandates, while cases are still high.
“Is this just an acknowledgment of how far we’re going to go on vaccinations, and that we’re going to have to live with COVID as endemic?” He asked.
Tudryn said those recommendations are attributed to the CDC’s classification of the virus as endemic, which means there is likely to be a constant presence of the virus.
“That’s their big reasoning – it’s not going away,” she said, also noting that currently available treatments weren’t available when the COVID-19 pandemic started two years ago.
She emphasized the “layered approach” to preventing the spread, acknowledging that even vaccinated people can become infected.
Proietti asked why public health guidelines seem to be changing day by day, especially when it comes to masks. The shift in focus can feel like a “whiplash,” she said.
“We’re still learning every day as we go,” Hoffman said. “We have never had COVID. The closest we’ve had was the Spanish flu, and we’re relying on data from that. They had no vaccines at that time.
Hoffman added that there are certain times when public health officials are prepared for spikes — during the holidays, for example.
“Having masks, not having masks — I think there’s a psychological component to people being done with the pandemic,” she said. “I think people are done wearing masks. I think, unfortunately, people just don’t want to deal with it. The reality is that just like other illnesses, like the flu, COVID is here. Even though we may not want to fight, we still have to – but we have to find a compromise, it seems.
The 7:30 p.m. virtual meeting on Thursday can be accessed via Webex at bit.ly/3HCdCu0. Participants can also join by phone by dialing 1-408-418-9388 and entering the meeting ID, 2632 991 5589.
Journalist Mary Byrne can be reached at email@example.com or 413-930-4429. Twitter: @MaryEByrne.