GMUSD board authorizes superintendent to impose mask mandate

CHESTER, Vt. – During their Aug. 19 meeting, the Green Mountain Unified School District has reaffirmed their decision from last year, again giving authority to the superintendent for all health and safety decisions concerning Covid-19 mitigation, which will include requiring masks for all students.

The GMUSD board had approved the same authority to the Two Rivers Supervisory Union Superintendent Lauren Fierman last year, leaving all Covid-19 regulations, implementation, and oversight under her authority.

The decision comes on the heels of an Aug. 18 memorandum from Vermont’s Agency of Education, which tasked local school boards with determining how Covid-19 mitigation strategies will be decided in their schools. According to the Aug. 18 memo, “The school board of the district may either act under its own authority to adopt a written policy concerning masking, or may delegate planning for the district’s Covid-19 mitigation measures, including masking requirements, to the superintendent.”

Board Chairman Joe Fromberger began the meeting outlining time limits for public comment to two-minute segments and allowing for a total of 10 minutes. Local residents and GMUSD parents Ken Saccardo and Angel Pelletier both spoke against enforced masking at school. Former board member and GMUSD parent Kate Lamphere spoke in favor of masking citing recommendations from the AOE, Center for Disease Control, Vermont Health Department, and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Fierman outlined the details of the recent AOE memo and asked that the board give her authorization so she can begin planning school reopening and also so she would have the authority to deal with day-to-day decisions, such as quarantining and tracing if there was an infection.

The board quickly made a motion to again approve giving authorization for all Covid-19 mitigating strategies to the superintendent, reaffirming their stance from last year. Before a vote on that motion could happen, board member Mike Studin made an amendment to the motion that would make the mask mandate optional for parents. He said he agreed with delegating most of the responsibilities for Covid prevention but would like to see an optional mask mandate.

Board member Abe Gross spoke against giving parents the option on masks, commenting that when parents send their children to a “government-run school” that comes with certain health requirements. “When you’re in the lab here, you have to wear goggles. When you’re in the woodshop, you have to wear PPE.”

He added, “The decision-making that the parents have is ‘Okay, this is what the school is going to do. Am I going to send my kiddo there or not?’ And that’s the decision that everybody has to make based on a number of different factors.”

Studin suggested that if the school was going to mandate masks, then they should have some other opportunity for school for students.

When new board member Josh Schroeder asked Fierman if she had any plans in place, Fierman said her recommendation would be to follow the guidance from the AOE, CDC, and AAP, which all recommend masking for children in school. “I don’t support the desire of people to make an individual decision that affects someone else… I would rather have fewer possibilities of illness than take chances,” she said.

Fierman said she had not yet made more specific decisions regarding other mitigation factors, but she would put together those details and schedule a public forum for parents and the community.

The board’s first vote was on the amendment to determine whether there would be a parental option allowed on masking. That amendment was defeated by a vote of 6 to 3. The initial motion was then voted on and was approved by 8 to 1, giving full authority to the superintendent for Covid-mitigation decisions.

Once approved, Fierman began to outline school opening procedures already being considered including following recommendations on masking from the AOE.

In a previous memo,“Covid-19 Advisory Memorandum,” dated Aug. 4, the AOE recommended masking for all students for the first 10 days of instruction while school staff evaluate the percentage of vaccinated students and staff in a building. After the first 10 days, schools that have 80% or higher vaccination rate may remove masks. Students 12 and younger, who are currently ineligible for the vaccine, will need to continue wearing masks indoors. All students must wear masks on the school bus. Masks are not required outside. Other recommendations include surveillance testing, contact tracing, quarantining, and staying home when sick.

Fierman also said that there would not be any medical exemptions allowed for wearing a mask, other than in very, very limited circumstances where a student would be unable to remove a mask themselves. “The reason not to wear one is not, ‘I don’t like to wear them and they make me uncomfortable,’” she said.

Currently, no distancing requirements are recommended unless students are eating. Fierman said that students should be distanced during lunch, and so they will probably not have students back in cafeteria. Band and chorus will happen this year with accepted ways to mask for instruments. Student testing will still be offered within schools with parental consent. She said there are many details still to work out, including specifics about quarantining.

While Fierman was speaking, outbursts from the audience resulted in Gross asking the Chairman to remove anyone who couldn’t act appropriately.

Fierman said that once the date for the public forum is set, it will be published on the website and sent out to parents. The next GMUSD meeting is scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 16 at 6 p.m. in the Chester-Andover Elementary School library. The first in-student school day is Tuesday, Sept. 7.

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