LACONIA — Face masks will be strongly recommended but not required when school resumes Tuesday, the School Board decided Wednesday evening.
The 5-2 vote, with school board members Aaron Hayward and Mal Murray against, came despite a presentation from Superintendent Steve Tucker showing increasing case numbers and what health officials regard as substantial spread of the virus in Belknap County and in Laconia. There are 69 cases in Laconia, which has a population of about 16,500.
The state Department of Health and Human Services wrote an Aug. 11 planning document for schools and childcare operations that included a recommendation that masks be worn indoors in regions where there is a substantial spread of the virus.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends universal indoor masking for teachers, staff, students and visitors to schools, regardless of vaccination status.
Inter-Lakes School District is requiring masks, while other local districts such as Franklin, Shaker, Winnisquam and Gilford are making it optional, Tucker said.
School board members Heather Lounsbury, Laura Dunn, Nick Grenon, Dawn Johnson and Joe Cormier voted in favor of recommending but not requiring masks.
“We passed out a brochure and I know you all got it via email, there are facts and data to back up every piece, that says kids are not transmitting this, they are pretty much the end game,” Johnson said.
Hayward countered, “Just because you wave a piece of paper doesn’t mean it’s true.”
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children and adolescents can be infected with COVID-19, can get sick with it and can spread the virus to others. The agency said an unvaccinated teacher in Marin County, California, with a cough, fever and headache read to students without wearing a mask and ended up infecting half her class with COVID-19. Ultimately, a total of 27 cases were identified, including parents and siblings.
Tucker said he believes most Laconia school staff members are vaccinated.
In the public comment period of the school board meeting, Jennifer Freo said masks aren’t just an inconvenience or only a political issue. Freo, a nurse practitioner, said she has allergies that make it very difficult for her to wear a mask for more than an hour at a time. She also said that 69 COVID-19 cases in a city the size of Laconia isn’t a serious concern.
Her husband also has difficulty with masks.
“To cover his face brings back PTSD tremendously, because of what he went through. He gets very upset, very angry because of his war experience,” she said.
“And, lastly there are children that are harmed because they are special ed children and they need to see the mechanics of a mouth.”
Douglas Teegarden said the board should focus on local case numbers when considering COVID-19 prevention measures.
“Last I knew the entire county didn’t attend the school district,” he said. “The staff has the option of being vaccinated or not vaccinated. They’re grown adults. Children should be afforded the same option on the masks.”
Dana Hackett, the mother of a 5-year-old immune-compromised child who will be starting kindergarten at Elm Street School this year, said it’s unfortunate that masks have become such a contentious issue.
“It is so heartbreaking as a parent that people are making a big deal about masks,” she said. “Masks aren't a big deal. It’s something on our face and it protects those it needs to, like my daughter. I really hope we can use a science-based common sense approach.”
If the disease begins to spread rapidly in schools, officials will be forced to resume remote instruction, and that’s an outcome nobody wants, she said.
The vaccine isn't available to children under age 12 and many teenagers have not been vaccinated. That means that when students return to school they will form an indoor population vulnerable to the virus, said Marcia Hayward.
“It’s pretty irresponsible not to give them every safety precaution there can be against this public health crisis,” she said.