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Pittsfield Schools Switch to Mandatory Masking
By Brittany Polito, iBerkshires Staff
04:15AM / Thursday, August 19, 2021
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The School Committee on Wednesday supports the decision to mandage masks in the schools.

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The Pittsfield Public Schools is reinstituting a universal mask mandate for students and staff. 
 
Superintendent Joseph Curtis told the School Committee on Wednesday that he recommended masking for all students and staff while indoors and on school buses. Along with this is a standard recommendation of a minimum of 3 feet social distancing wherever possible.
 
The School Committee gave the superintendent the authority in May to amend the masking policy based on metrics and state and federal guidance.
 
Curtis presented COVID-19 data from one year ago as compared to current data to support his decision.
 
"I feel very strongly, and I know there's much public debate about the concept of masking, many community members have reached out to me via email with opinions, strong feelings, research, and pretty equally opposed," he said.
 
"And saying that, you have evidence of breakthrough cases in Massachusetts and many other locations, and we're hearing much more about how the Delta variant is affecting young children, which a year ago, it really wasn't discussed, there was a great deal of concern for our older population and now you've seen that change with the Delta, or the current circumstances."
 
Pittsfield's policy change follows votes in the North Adams and Mount Greylock Regional districts over the last week to mandate face coverings. 
 
The school year began remotely in 2020 with 2.3 cases per 100,000 people and a 0.7 percent positivity rate. As of Aug. 17, the city has 16.6 cases per 100,000 people and a 3.2 percent positivity rate.
 
Curtis speculated that the case numbers are "certainly higher" than they were at this time last year. To keep children in school, he made a number of changes for the district mask policy, which was last amended in May.
 
All students and staff are to be masked while indoors and in any school vehicle, to maintain at least 3 feet of social distancing whenever possible, and to maintain 4 to 6 feet during unmasked meal services with all students facing the same direction while eating.
 
No masks are required for participation in outdoor sports but unvaccinated individuals are strongly encouraged to wear a mask. No spectator restrictions are proposed including concession stand. When athletes are in the lockerroom or on buses, they are to be masked.
 
For the one indoor fall sport, volleyball, Curtis recommends that masks are required for players and spectators.
 
"We must take every mitigation measure to ensure that our students remain in in-person school for the entire school year, we cannot have another school year, where we're going back and forth between in-person learning, hybrid learning, and remote learning," he said.
 
"That would be another year, on top of the year and a half, where our students have lost a great deal of not only education but social-emotional supports and just being with their peers."
 
Though he was given authority to amend the policy, Curtis said he preferred to use the term "recommends," "realizing that I will be listening closely to the will of the committee, as my employer."
 
"And would take the understanding of the will of the committee, and use that to formulate our next steps,  in relation to the mask and health and safety procedures in Pittsfield Public Schools."
 
Committee member William Cameron said only "urging" students to wear masks may result in people not wearing them.  
 
"If we're going to have a policy it ought to be a requirement, otherwise we're not taking the steps we need to inhibit the spread of the virus in school," he said.
 
"Schools are safe, have been safe and could be open, not because of the rate of infection in the community but because of this extent of the precautions that were taken in school and I think that we need to continue to recognize that if we don't have a requirement we're basically saying, 'Well, if it happens, it happens but we did our best by urging people to do something they really want to be doing.'"
 
Mayor Linda Tyer said she endorsed all of the recommendations and seconded Cameron's sentiments.
 
She assured the community that the district is going to continue the air quality and ventilation practices that were done last year.
 
"I feel like this requirement is the only away we're going to keep our children in school, hopefully for a full year," member Mark Brazeau said.
 
"I'm just looking at the rates we are at right now, in my honest opinion looking at data is, where we're at the beginning of what's coming, so I think we just need to do this going forward from the beginning require 100 percent masking in schools, transportation, and with sports."
 
Member Nyanna Slaughter suggested that concession stand workers be required to be masked because they are handling food.
 
Curtis reported that there was a "large population" of students last year — some with parents who did not want their child masking — who registered for the Virtual Academy. Some family members have had their child register for the academy in anticipation of a masking policy because they do not want them wearing a mask.
 
"We've had some difficulties, they were few and far between, to be quite honest, last year and there was a lot of discussing with the families the importance of this, making some compromise between a mask and maybe a face shield," he added.
 
He added that there would not be any suspensions over face coverings. Curtis said he will be informing the school community about the masking policy by Aug. 23.
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