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Without A Statewide Mandate, Berkshire School Districts Tackle Masking Policies On Their Own

A crowd of young people mill in front of an entrance with "TACONIC" spelled out in metal over it
Pittsfield Public Schools

With the return of the school year fast approaching, districts in Berkshire County are deciding whether to issue mask mandates in lieu of a statewide order.

Despite rising COVID-19 numbers in the state and nationwide, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker says he will leave the choice about implementing mask mandates to individual school districts.

“Giving locals the opportunity to own the decisions they make is a big and important issue," he said. "And if you look at what's playing out in other states right now, where state government has taken away the authority for locals to make their own decisions- That's not the right way to play this game. It's just not.”

In the Berkshires, many districts are embracing masking with a return to in-person education just weeks away.

“By adopting a universal masking policy, we are going to say that regardless of your vaccination status, we're going to ask that you wear a mask indoors," said North Adams Public Schools Superintendent Barbara Malkas. “There are some exceptions that are listed within the policy. And those exceptions are really about students with disabilities, where masking may pose a particular problem for the student or if they have trouble breathing or if they're unconscious or incapacitated in any way. Or if they are someone who might have difficulty removing a mask without assistance. Students can remove their mask during mask breaks while eating or drinking, during physical education classes and while outside.”

She says the policy was accepted enthusiastically by parents and teachers alike, noting that many of the district’s 1,300 students are under 12 and thus not eligible for vaccination.

“We have so many students who have younger siblings at the elementary level who are not vaccinated, who then have older siblings who attend the high school," explained Malkas. "So really, we just decided, let us go with our policy that has worked for us. We had this as part of our plan that was adopted by school committee last year when we were returning to in person learning in the hybrid model. We've just decided that we would continue that practice by adopting this policy, and therefore really, with the goal, meeting the goal, the hope to meet the goal, of having our students in school for in person learning for a longer period of time.”

The joint Williamstown and Lanesborough school district has also adopted universal masking.

“We just think the most responsible thing and the most neighborly thing to do is to have masks for everybody, students and adults alike, in grades pre-K through 12. We just think that is the best way to keep not only ourselves and our students but the entire community safe in a setting where we know that we don't have every single person vaccinated," said Mount Greylock Regional School District Superintendent Jake McCandless. “The last I saw, which was a week or two ago, is that once a school reaches 80% of their student body is fully vaccinated, then you can start looking at, OK, you know what, your community is largely vaccinated, maybe it's time for the masks to go. We certainly encourage everybody to get vaccinated. We are going to run a robust pooled testing program once again this year for adults and students in the community.”

Some of the superintendents polled by WAMC were critical of Baker’s choice to leave the decision to localities.

“I'm not a fan of super top down leadership in any arena," said McCandless. "But we're talking about a pandemic. We're talking about impacting directly and in deep ways people's lives, every person we serve and all the people that are doing that service. And I think we definitely would have been better served by statewide approach to this. As much as I respect the people making the decision and as much as I respect that many, many decisions should be made close to home, in the public K-12 world there are a host of decisions that we have no say on, they are state mandates. I think for right now it would have been helpful to have these masks be among those decisions.”

Peter Dillon is the superintendent of the Berkshire Hills Regional School District, which represents the Great Barrington, Stockbridge and West Stockbridge community.

“I feel blessed to work in in a school community where the school committee is very clear about what they want to do, so we had a unanimous vote," he told WAMC. "I get the idea of local control and that each community knows best or may know best what makes sense, but I also wish there were slightly clearer guidance. Having 351 towns negotiate this all out or wrestle with it might be time that could be better spent on something else.”

In the county’s largest community, Pittsfield, public schools superintendent Joe Curtis told WAMC he was “projecting a decision on Monday” about masks.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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