NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Following an Aug. 19 executive order from Gov. Dan McKee and the guidelines from the CDC, Rhode Island Department of Health, Rhode Island Department of Education and the Rhode Island chapter of the American Association of Pediatrics, the North Kingstown School Committee voted to adopt Superintendent Phil Auger’s mask policy proposal during their meeting Tuesday night.
The policy follows the CDC guideline to require universal mask wearing of all students, teachers, staff and visitors inside of K-12 schools regardless of their vaccination status during times of Substantial and High Transmission, which will be measured in cases of per 100,000, with anything over 50 cases per 100,000 considered Substantial, and will be determined by Auger using data from RIDOH on a weekly basis. In times of Low to Moderate Transmission, which is under 49.99 cases per 100,000, masks will not be required. Per federal orders, masks will be required when riding buses regardless of transmission status until the federal order is lifted.
Additionally, in times of Substantial and High Transmission, which Auger said the town is currently in according to the latest data which put the town at 237 cases per 100,000, masks will be required for staff and students outdoors during crowded outdoor settings and activities involving sustained long term contact with others. Sports will follow guidelines set by Auger based on the guidelines from the Rhode Island Interscholastic League and CDC based on the requirements by the individual sports.
The new ordinance replaces last year’s ordinance and has several differences, including full in-person classes for all students and a return to pre-pandemic class schedules as well as bus schedules and start/end times, with the exception of Davisville Academy, which will now entirely run on the high school’s start/end times. Visitors will be allowed in the building as long as they meet pre-pandemic requirements and follow the COVID-19 protocols and the schools will no longer perform symptomatic or asymptomatic COVID-19 tests in school or during sports unless conditions warrant it.
The ordinance passed by a 4-1 vote, with Committee Member Jake Mather as the sole opposition vote. Mather complained that the ordinance didn’t do enough.
The only amendment made to Auger’s proposal was removing the word “recess” from outdoor activities, making mask wearing optional for the 20 to 30 minute time slot for elementary school students to serve as a bit of a “mask break” during the day. The decision passed by a narrow 3-2 margin, with School Committee Members Jen Lima, Jennifer Hoskins and Lisa Hildebrand voting in favor of the change and Mather and School Committee Chairman Greg Blasbalg voting against it.
As expected, the decision to adopt forced masking came with controversy, with some parents, teachers and students voicing their opposition to mask mandates while others spoke in support of the order.
“I know this is not necessarily an issue there is universal agreement on,” Auger said, adding that the district was required to have a mask mandate as per McKee’s executive order.
“Executive orders supersede any policies made by the North Kingstown School Department until lifted,” Auger said.
The meeting got tense at times, with it starting 10 minutes late as Blasblag refused to start the meeting until all in attendance were wearing masks. A recess was called about 20 minutes into the meeting as several audience members took off their masks and refused to put them back on, and a brief recess was called during public comment after one of the speakers continued to talk beyond his allotted time despite warnings from Blasbalg.
To argue his case, Auger brought in the district’s consulting physician, pediatrician Dr. Howard Silversmith, who stressed the importance of mask wearing.
Silversmith said he too doesn’t like wearing masks and misses seeing the smiling faces of his patients over the past year and a half, but that by wearing one, he said he’s helping to do his part to protect others, especially those at high risk or who are immunocompromised.
“We’re asking you to protect others,” Silversmith said.
All other actions on the evening were voted on unanimously, while the district’s Chief Operating Officer Mary King struck back at a comment regarding the lack of an HVAC system at Wickford Middle School and that the district wasn’t addressing it.
“At the Aug. 10, 2021 meeting, it was fully discussed to move forward using federal funds to put in a ventilation system at Wickford Middle School,” King said.
The first day of school for grades one through nine and the orientation for Pre-K and Kindergarten is Sept. 3, while the first day for Pre-K, Kindergarten and grades 10 through 12 is Sept. 7.
The next School Committee meeting is scheduled for Sept. 14 at 7 p.m. in the NKHS Auditorium.