LACONIA — Students in the city’s public school will continue to be required to wear face masks through the end of the school year after the School Board rebuffed the move by one of its members to abolish them.
The board voted Tuesday to continue with the requirement that students and staff wear face masks when they cannot maintain social distance. The vote followed a sometimes tense discussion prompted by Dawn Johnson’s request to scrap the mask policy contained in the district’s COVID precautions policy, which the board approved last August.
Johnson first raised her objection to the mask mandate two weeks after the policy was approved, arguing that the masks cause students physical harm, emotional distress, and that the mandate is unconstitutional.
“Evidence shows that these masks don’t do anything. It is the virus that is sticking to these masks,” she told the board at Tuesday’s meeting.
However, indications are that masks may have helped keep the spread of COVID-19 in schools low, according to Dr. Benjamin Chan, the state’s epidemiologist.
“The lack of high transmission in schools is likely due in part to the layered mitigation measures implemented by schools during this school year, including continued face mask use,” Chan said in an email sent to Superintendent Steve Tucker last week. Tucker distributed Chan's email to the board last week and then read it to the board during Tuesday's meeting.
Tucker said data maintained by the School District shows there has been no transmission of coronavirus in the schools themselves. He said the positive cases which have been reported among students and school staff show “they are generally happening outside the school.”
He credited the COVID precautions which the district has been following since the start of the school year for the lack of in-school transmission of the virus. But he noted Chan warned schools not to relax the protocols they have been following.
“Community spread of COVID-19 is still high … So while we haven’t identified significant transmission within schools, the risk is still present,” Chan wrote in the email to Tucker, particularly in light of the fact that most school students are not fully vaccinated.
Tucker said guidance from the state Department of Health and Human Services states that those who are unvaccinated or partially vaccinated should continue to wear masks if they cannot socially-distance.
Tucker noted that a special COVID vaccination clinic has been scheduled for this coming Sunday and on June 13 for youngsters between the ages of 12 and 18. The clinics will be held at the Belknap Mall from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The first dose will be administered on Sunday and the second dose on June 13.
That prompted Johnson to rebuke Tucker for publicizing alleged bogus medical treatment.
“Why are we getting our kids to go for these vaccines?” she asked. “They are not evidence-based. There isn’t any FDA approval.”
Johnson’s response to Tucker prompted board Vice Chairman Aaron Hayward to intervene.
“You do not need to berate him when he is putting out information,” he said sternly.
At the School Board meeting two weeks ago Johnson alleged that the district’s face mask policy was a violation of state law. She cited a state law which prohibits face-down restraint that impedes breathing on children who are exhibiting behavioral issues.
Tucker told the board that the state Attorney General’s Office said that law does not apply to wearing face masks, and so the mask policies do not run afoul of the restraint law.
Johnson’s motion to repeal the mask policy failed when no one seconded the motion. Member Joe Cormier then made the motion that the current policy continue. The vote was 4-2, with Johnson and member Laura Dunn voting against.
Some members of the public at the meeting told the board they are opposed to the face mask requirement.
Douglas Teegarden said one face mask manufacturer had concluded that standard face masks are too porous to capture the microscopic coronavirus particles.
Cathy Brown said she was particularly opposed to requiring student athletes to wear masks during games or competition.
Brad Brown acknowledged that while the mask policy would undoubtedly remain in place for the rest of this school year, he implored the board to drop the policy before school resumes in the fall.