MEREDITH — After hearing testimony Tuesday from supporters and opponents of mandating masks in school, the Inter-Lakes School Board will continue its current policy, which requires staff and students to wear face coverings indoors when the number of those infected reaches 12 in the district's three schools – a threshold that was crossed late last week.
A recent petition signed by 111 verified voters will not force a special district meeting, as they had hoped, because it did not contain roughly 300 signatures, the required 5% of the district’s 6,000 voters. The signers hoped to force a mask-optional policy pending a community-wide poll. An additional petition with 153 signatures was submitted Monday, but the names have not been verified yet.
The current plan in place has unanimous support of board members, said chair Lisa Merrill of Meredith. “That opening plan is the plan we’re following. No vote was taken because no vote was required,” Merrill said.
In an interview before Tuesday’s meeting, Superintendent Mary Moriarty defended the wisdom of the district’s policy, which is intended to change and adapt as local cases of COVID rise or decline.
“Our opening plan that we have in place has a continuum based on what’s happening locally and on the county level.” The goal is to preserve in-person learning with “a nimble plan that will evolve and change direction” based on community infection totals and transmission rates. “Last year we learned that steps can be taken to mitigate the numbers” and masks are part of that. “We want to keep out community healthy and in school. That’s our job,” Moriarty said.
Current data for the district’s three communities show that there are six known cases of COVID in Center Harbor, 23 cases in Meredith and one to four cases in Center Harbor. Among staff, teachers and students, there are no cases so far at Sandwich Central School, five at Inter-Lakes Elementary School and seven at Inter-Lakes Middle-High School, for a total of 12 – the number that triggers masks required in school buildings but not outdoors.
Even though there are no cases presently at Sandwich Central School, “The reality is these communities overlap a lot. The kids overlap a lot. Between school buses and activities, there’s a lot of crossover,” Moriarty said.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Barbara Loughman, Inter-Lakes School district attorney cited legal problems with the petition presented by parents who wanted a meeting for the community to vote on whether masks would be optional or required. According to state statute, a petition requesting a special district meeting in a cooperative school district must be signed by 5% of the voters on the check list, a requirement that wasn’t close to being met. Even if a meeting were held and voters overwhelmingly endorsed a no-mask policy, the board could still act independently, Loughman said. RSA 189:15 gives school boards decision-making power in issues affecting attendance by staff and students. Voter authority is limited to adopting the school budget and does not allow district residents to determine school policy. “My advice to the school board is that they do not have to call a school district meeting. That vote would not be binding, and voters would be overruled,” Loughman said.
The left some parents feeling excluded from the process of crafting controversial school policies that do not have wide public backing.
“We were trying to have a public voice and not let them sit and decide something without that. It’s not just about the masks, it’s about the choice – a parent’s choice, my right to raise my child the way I see fit," said Stacy Biyolcic of Meredith, who organized the petition requesting the special district meeting, without realizing many more signatures were required. “We send our kids to a public school to have public rights. They’ve taken them away.”
With policy-making resting with school boards and growing limits on public comment at meetings, the opportunities for parent influence are “only going to get worse,” Biyolcic said.
Keith Champagne, a Meredith resident with children in district schools, said he felt cut out. “Most of us feel that the school board doesn’t care how we think to begin with.”
In regard to mandating masks in school, “50 percent of the people, because they’re afraid, feel the other 50 percent should have to do something to appease that fear. They want to force the other side to do something to make themselves feel better,.” said Champagne.
At Tuesday’s board meeting, parents attending online and in person seemed to be evenly split between mask proponents, and those who want face coverings for students to be a matter of personal and parent choice.
Melanie Hodge of Sandwich, whose children graduated from Inter-Lakes schools, said she backs the board’s current rules. “They’ve done a phenomenal job in a challenging and ever-changing situation. They’re using the science and evidence they have in front of them with the ultimate goal of keeping schools and communities safe. As our school board, they have the responsibility to make decisions to keep our children safe,” said Hodge. “Our vote for them is saying, ‘You are our voice.’”
Emily Coulter of Sandwich said she supports the school board’s “common-sense” policy which includes remote school options, social distancing, quarantining and masks. “I hope you will stand firm in regard to science and community well-being. Please don’t give in,” she said,
Catherine Field of Center Sandwich, a teacher and parent of former students, voiced “100 percent support for the well-conceived and well-thought out mandate for everyone’s safety.”
“When we consider elementary school kids who are unable to get vaccinated, wearing masks indoors is 100 percent what science is behind,” said Oliver Anderson of Sandwich.
“Thank you for your efforts to keep schools open and in-person,” said Christina Tuohy of Meredith, who believes mitigation measures, including masks, “contributed to the percentage of last year we were able to stay open.”
Those opposed to mandating masks at this time say their decision is also based on science, and not polling parent opinion compromises democracy, the public trust, and potentially also children’s health.
“Parents should have a say for their own children. Let us vote. We have enough censorship in this country already,” wrote Tara Staples of Meredith, who attended Tuesday’s meeting remotely. Staples said she was “disgruntled and disgusted by how parents were treated” at the last school board meeting, and believes the new 15-minute cap on public comment, which is limited to the start of the meeting, effectively silences many families.
Cayla Peasley of Sandwich, who has a 5-year-old at Sandwich Elementary School, said changing mask mandates weekly is confusing, but making masks optional would satisfy both sides. “People who aren’t afraid to live life in fear of getting sick” shouldn’t have to wear masks, she said. “There have been no child deaths from COVID in New Hampshire. Why don’t parents get a vote?”
Mark Anderson of Meredith, who advocates a mask-optional policy, said Centers for Disease Control studies have found no appreciable difference in infection rates between schools that mandated masks and those where masks were a matter of choice. “In my opinion, this is merely a formality for you. None of you have to look at the frustration in the faces of your children, who say it’s difficult to do schoolwork while wearing a mask.” Anderson said that CDC studies show that breathing exhaled carbon dioxide trapped inside masks can affect the brains of developing children.
He likened COVID-19 to strains of influenza, which return each year. “The coronavirus is never going away. It’s going to be here for the rest of their lives. I’m not going to tell you that COVID isn’t real or that we shouldn’t be cautious. If this approach is taken, we’ll be wearing (masks) forever. If you fear for your child’s safety, you should keep your child home. If the board won’t answer the requests of the community, maybe it’s time for a new board,” Anderson said.
“In 559 days of tracking COVID in New Hampshire, zero children have died. It really should be a parental choice,” said Leslie Johnson of Sandwich, who has four children in district schools, and was hoping for a meeting where parents could vote and mold the board’s decision.
Another parent argued that 13 cases in students across the district’s three school’s – Inter-Lakes Elementary, Inter-Lakes Middle High School and Sandwich Central School – seems like a low number to trigger masks indoors, when perhaps social distancing would suffice.
Dr. Barbara Syev, whose name and spelling could not be confirmed before publication, said she lives in Sandwich with her husband, who is also a physician. She said she supports wearing masks in school to suppress community transmission, especially in indoor environments that contain people who aren’t vaccinated. "No current medical information states that children suffer medically or psychologically from wearing masks, she said.
“We’re not doing this to satisfy ourselves. We have requirements to act under the law and for the good of all, especially if people are doing something that could directly lead to the death of another human being,” she said. “We don’t have unlimited rights.”
She said their 8-year-old granddaughter recently announced that she would go to school in person “Only if I can wear a mask. I’m not going into a school unless everyone’s wearing a mask. It’s the right thing to do for each other.”
According to Nicole Beaubeouf of Sandwich, an emergency room nurse who spoke at the board’s special meeting at the end of August, research shows that only properly fitted N-95 masks are effective at quelling germ transmission; the disposable paper and cloth masks that most people wear are not.
“We have done our research,” said Champagne of Meredith. Masks “are ineffective and in some cases they make matters worse.” COVID-19 molecules are “sub-microscopic, which means they will pass through these masks unimpacted. Ninety-nine percent is going to make it through.”