LACONIA — The decision on whether students and staff will be required to wear face masks when classes resume next month will be made at the end of the month.
The School Board on Tuesday unanimously approved the school reopening plan outlined by Superintendent Steve Tucker who recommended deferring for two weeks the decision on whether face masks will be optional or mandatory.
Tucker recommended holding off on the mask decision in light of the growing number of COVID cases across the state.
At present he said he would recommend making masks optional based on current data, but “things are going to change,” and so he urged postponing a decision until closer to the opening of school set for Sept. 7.
Normally the board, which meets on the first and third Tuesdays of the month, would not meet again until Sept. 7.
But in order to give advance notice of the mask policy the board is now expected to meet on Aug. 31.
The discussion about face masks and other COVID precautions was the main item of business during the 2¼-hour meeting during which there was also considerable comment from some in the audience who objected to the teaching of Critical Race Theory in city schools, a charge which school officials deny.
In presenting the plan for school reopening, Tucker said the district’s top priority is to have the students in school full-time, every day. He acknowledged that remote and hybrid learning, though necessary, were unsatisfactory and that some students had fallen behind in their learning as a result.
He said the COVID precautions that will be in place are intended to ensure that full-time, in-person classroom instruction will be uninterrupted.
“What’s the tipping point?,” board member Laura Dunn asked Tucker, referring to what threshold in the COVID data would he feel compelled to recommend making face masks mandatory.
But Tucker said there was no specific metric that would be the determining factor.
“No one has that,” he said.
He said his advice to the School Board will be based on recommendations from the state Department of Health and Human Services, but pointed out that he would be taking local data, including the number of active COVID cases in Laconia at a given time, in formulating his recommendations.
As in other school districts, students will be required to wear face masks while on school buses, in accordance with a federal mandate which school bus companies are required to follow. That regulation will apply to students who are being transported to and from school, as well as athletes traveling to games.
The full roster of fall sports will be offered, and players will not need to wear masks.
Tucker said the aim is to make the school day as much like normal as possible. Students will have lunch in the school cafeteria to the extent possible. In addition, school support groups, such as PTOs, will once again be able to meet and hold activities in school buildings.
As for social distancing, Tucker said the aim is to have students and staff a minimum of 3 feet apart, though he said “this could be a challenge” in some cases.
The district will not offer full-time remote instruction this year. Those parents who do not want their child returning to class while the pandemic continues will need to use other options, such as VLACS, an online learning charter school based in Exeter.
Tucker said flexibility will be important because the number of COVID cases and other data are expected to fluctuate.
“We need to adjust,” he said.
Some members of the public who attended the meeting addressed the board about the mask issue.
Many said that the matter should be left up to parents to decide. But another speaker said wearing a mask is an appropriate way to reduce the spread of the virus.
“Masks are one tool in the toolbox to mitigate this,” Karen Salome, a nurse, told the board.
Much of the public comment period, which lasted one hour, was taken up by members of the audience criticizing school officials for promoting Critical Race Theory. Prior to the meeting a group of people holding placards, staged an anti-CRT demonstration on Union Avenue in front of Laconia School.
Laura Polakowski said the district was trying to masquerade the controversial racial concept under different names, such as inclusivity.
“We need to see some transparency from the board,” she said.
Another resident, Oscar Toce, accused the school district of disseminating “left-wing ideology,”
But Jane Whitehead said that social issues need to be part of a school’s curriculum, even if the topics they touch on are controversial.
“We need to make sure that students are taught the importance of critical thinking,” she said.
Tucker has said unequivocally at previous meetings that CRT is not being taught in the city’s public schools.