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Local Control A ‘Double-Edged Sword’ In N.H. School Mask Debate

A school bus in Somersworth
Sarah Gibson
A school bus in Somersworth

New Hampshire students are back in school this month, but the COVID safety precautions they’ll encounter vary widely by district. Some school boards are requiring masks, based on guidance from health officials. Others are heeding the concerns of some parents - particularly those opposed to mask mandates - and not requiring masks at all.

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This patchwork reflects New Hampshire’s tradition of local control in education matters. But it has put some school boards in the middle of a caustic public debate which could have profound consequences for public health.

The New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services issued guidance for schools on masking and other safety measures, but it’s up to school boards to make the final call. What are the big takeaways from the state’s guidance?

The major goal of state and federal health officials is to prioritize in-person learning while mitigating the transmission of COVID-19.

The state’s guidance touches on a variety of mitigation measures, including vaccination, good air circulation and filtration systems, three feet of social distancing when possible, COVID-19 screening, and universal indoor masking in all areas with substantial rates of COVID-19 transmission.

According to the state’s dashboard, every county in New Hampshire has substantial transmission, though levels vary by town.

The state’s recommendations mirror much of the CDC’s, but there are differences on masking.

Many public health experts stress that indoor masking is important for controlling the spread of the more infectious delta variant, especially among unvaccinated people. And masking is one of the safety measures they attribute to schools’ success last year in reopening and keeping transmission rates in the buildings relatively low.

Are we going to see the same approach to contact tracing, remote learning and quarantining that we did last year?

The state says it will work with schools during an identified outbreak or cluster of COVID-19, but the requirements for contact tracing and quarantining aren’t nearly as robust as last year. Even when positive cases emerge, officials hope most students will continue in-person instruction.

However, if a student shows up to school with symptoms of COVID-19, the state recommends that student go home and remain home until receiving a negative COVID test or quarantining for a certain number of days.

If students or staff are in close contact with a positive case, the state says schools should ask them to monitor for symptoms and potentially wear a mask. Quarantining is only recommended for people who are unvaccinated and living with a person who tested positive.

This process is already playing out in districts like Londonderry, which has identified at least one positive COVID-19 case. Staff and students in close contact are being asked to wear masks, get tested, and monitor symptoms. However, masks are still optional for everyone else.

How are different schools approaching masking? 

Most districts have some version of a mask policy. Per federal law, all districts must require masks on school buses. The rest varies by school.

In some New Hampshire districts, like ConVal, Manchester, Nashua and Concord, masks are required for everyone indoors. This could change once the community meets certain metrics, such as lower COVID-19 transmission rates, a significantly higher vaccination rate, and/or vaccine availability for children under 12

In other districts, like Litchfield and Londonderry, masks in some schools are optional at the start of the year. In some districts, they're required only in hallways or where kids can't maintain three feet of distance, but not in the classroom.

Many schools have developed thresholds for when an outbreak at the school or a substantial spike in community transmission of COVID-19 will prompt a change in mask policy.

If an individual has an illness or condition that makes wearing a mask difficult, do school boards or schools with mask mandates make an exception?

In some cases, yes. Some students who have special education plans related to sensory processing disorders, speech disorders and delays, or autism need to see their teachers’ faces and in some cases go mask-free in order to learn how to read and produce facial and social cues. Depending on the district, those students might be granted an exception.

There’s clear public health guidance on masks. How should school boards balance that guidance against the concerns of parents who don’t want their kids to wear masks?

Depends whom you ask.

At a press conference in August, Gov. Chris Sununu said that in spite of state guidance on masks, masks were not the “end-all, be-all of success….they’re just one piece of a much, much bigger puzzle.”

He also said that parents “are the best tool in deciding what is best for their kids.”

But others warn against privileging parents over public health experts.

Dr. Carl Ladd, the executive director of the New Hampshire Association of School Administrators, says when it comes to masks, local control has become a “double-edged sword.”

“It’s been so politicized, we’re following political science rather than medical science,” he said.

But some school board members say heeding parents is part of their role as elected officials.

Forrest Carter, the vice-chair of the Seabrook School Board, voted with his board to make masks optional in large part due to parent input.

He says parents were watching their kids go to summer school and camp without masks when Rockingham County reached substantial transmission of COVID-19 last month. They didn’t want the school telling their kids to put masks back on this fall.

“We had an outpouring of parents who were really concerned with their children being mandated to do anything,” he said. “When we have a school system or any large government agency that is telling people they have to do something, that gets really dicey.”

Do some people say that local control allows them to follow good public health guidelines?

Yes. Several districts say they’re incorporating state guidance into their own metric for when and how to require masks. And they say that relying just on county transmission levels of COVID-19 doesn’t capture the actual risk in different towns.

In Coos County, for instance, several large prisons occasionally have COVID-19 outbreaks. This pushes all of the sparsely populated county into substantial transmission according to the state dashboard.

But these outbreaks might be largely contained in specific facilities, and local health professionals say the risk of community transmission in those scenarios is so low that not every school in the county needs to require masks.

Each Thursday, a team of community leaders, doctors and superintendents in the county meets via Zoom, and based on community transmission levels and other factors, they’ll decide whether Berlin and Gorham school districts should require masks the following week.

Gorham superintendent David Beckler says this hyperlocal approach is trustworthy and more likely to get the support of parents for COVID risk management for the foreseeable future.

“Wearing a mask for the next multiple years is not something that I think anybody really wants to do. So, how do we make sure that when we see a surge, we can put the mask on?” he says. “We can see that surge through. And then when it goes back down, can we come back as normally as possible?”

Districts requiring masks have encountered substantial pushback and, in some cases, threats. What's going on there?

Across the country, public schools have become the site of some of the country’s most polarizing debates - over everything from how to talk about race to how to manage COVID-19. And masks have become a major target during public input at school board meetings.

Parents and conservative activists, some encouraged by groups like Health Freedom New Hampshire and Republican lawmakers, are decrying mask mandates as an infringement on parental choice. In some cases, they are suing school districts and accusing schools of medical tyranny and child abuse, in spite of evidence that masks reduce transmission of COVID-19.

This fight has become particularly tense in the Nashua School District, which is requiring masks.

Heather Raymond, the chairwoman of the school board, says she respects parents’ right to voice concerns, but the fight over masks has a psychological toll.

“I don't want our children to get sick and I don't want to have to close schools,” she says. “For me, voting for masking was the easy part. The hard part is the vitriol that we're receiving from the people who disagree with us. One of our members is getting death threats.”

Even though most districts have decided on their mask rules for the fall, the question of masks and school health protocols will likely shape school board elections in the months to come.

Sarah Gibson joined NHPR's newsroom in 2018. She reports on education and demographics.
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