WESTERLY — The new school year, which begins on Sept. 7, is likely to start with at least a strong recommendation that students and staff wear masks while indoors at school, Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau told the School Committee this week.
Speaking during the School Committee's meeting on Wednesday, the same day that news agencies reported that Westerly had the highest rate of new COVID-19 cases last week, Garceau said the decision would be left to the School Committee.
"Given the current trajectory, it's very likely the committee will have the choice to either institute a mask mandate, have no mandate, or go with a strong recommendation that all students and staff wear masks in school all day long," Garceau said.
If the cases of the virus trend in the wrong direction in the region, Garceau said, a strict mask mandate may be necessary.
According to the Providence Journal, Westerly's 81 new positive cases last week translates to a rate of 361.9 per 100,000 people. Newport and Charlestown were the next highest municipalities in the state. On Thursday, seven patients were being treated for COVID-19 at Westerly Hospital.
A few residents who said they have children enrolled in schools in the town addressed the School Committee on Wednesday and asked the committee to allow parents the option of whether their children wear masks in school. The parents questioned the efficacy of masks in preventing the spread of the virus, and some argued that masks are harmful to children.
Garceau noted that the federal Centers for Disease Control is advising students and teachers to wear masks regardless of vaccination status and he said the state Department of Health "strongly recommends" mask wearing by students and teachers especially in high transmission areas. Additionally, Garceau said, the Rhode Island chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends the use of face masks in schools.
Current protocols, Garceau said, call for a layered approach to slow the spread of the virus consisting of mask wearing, social distancing, contact tracing, and quarantines. If an individual who was wearing a face mask comes into contact with an individual who was wearing a mask and later tests positive for the virus, the non-infected person would not have to quarantine, Garceau said.
Garceau acknowledged the argument made by some that children's immune systems become stronger through exposure to certain germs but he also noted that the school district had very low cases of flu and colds last year when masks were required for in-person learning.