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Schools assess COVID-19 vaccination rates and eligibility to lift mask mandates

  • The Pioneer Valley Regional School District School Committee meets, with masks on, at the school on Aug. 19. STAFF FILE PHOTO/ZACK DELUCA

  • Registered nurse Sam Stafford of the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office gives a COVID-19 vaccine to Mohawk Trail Regional School Special Education Liaison Erin Beaudet during a vaccine clinic at Mohawk Trail Regional School on March 15. Contributed photo/Carla Potts

Staff Writer
Published: 9/15/2021 5:23:18 PM

If school districts can prove they have reached an 80 percent COVID-19 vaccination rate among students and faculty by Oct. 1, they may be eligible to remove mask mandates based on a policy from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).

Under state regulations, masks are required at all schools through Oct. 1. At that time, if a district can demonstrate that eligible students and staff have reached the required vaccination rate, they may be eligible to lift their mask mandates. However, all unvaccinated individuals would still be required to wear masks.

During a Sept. 9 meeting, Pioneer Valley Regional School District School Committee members expressed concerns with potentially breaching employee privacy by asking for their vaccination status. However, Pioneer Valley Regional School teachers’ union President Claire Brennan said she felt there would be no harm if faculty voluntarily provided their vaccination status.

“If, by October, we can prove we’ve reached an 80 percent vaccination status, then we may not have to wear masks, but the only way to get that information is if people volunteer it,” Brennan told the Greenfield Recorder after the meeting. “Those that don’t want to don’t have to. If people are willing to share, it’s one way to find out what the status of the population of our district is or isn’t. … Personally, I would be happy to volunteer that information.”

Speaking this week, superintendents from multiple Franklin County school districts, including the Greenfield School Department and Frontier Regional and Union 38 school districts, said they do not have pertinent data at this time, but they are intending to discuss proper ways to collect the vaccination data.

After the Sept. 9 meeting, Pioneer Valley Regional School District Interim Superintendent Patricia Kinsella said she was planning to speak with faculty and the broader school district community to gauge support for, or resistance to, a potential vaccination mandate. Using a new twitter account, @InterimSuptPV, Kinsella inquired if other districts in the state had implemented vaccination mandates for faculty.

Tracy O’Connell Novick, field director with the Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC), replied to this question by sharing a data sheet listing masks and vaccination mandates for districts across the state. According to this data sheet, Berkshire Hills Regional, Lexington, Newton, Salem and Somerville school districts have vaccination mandates for staff.

Speaking this week, Franklin County Technical School Superintendent Rick Martin said 97 percent of the school’s 100 staff members are fully vaccinated. The population of students between ninth and 12th grade had reached an approximately 50% vaccination rate for its 590 students.

Mohawk Trail Regional School District School Committee Chair Martha Thurber said her district does not have hard figures for vaccination rates, but she is “confident staff are pretty well vaccinated given that the district hosted a vaccination clinic last spring” where, according to Thurber, many faculty members were vaccinated.

According to the state Department of Public Health’s latest data from Sept. 9, approximately 78 percent of eligible individuals in Franklin County who are at least 12 years old have at least one vaccine dose, while 70 percent are fully vaccinated. A weekly COVID-19 Municipality Vaccination Report, which includes data for vaccination rates by age, race, sex and municipality, can be downloaded at bit.ly/3AjrWVx.

While schools within Franklin County are still collecting vaccination data and have yet to seriously consider vaccination mandates for faculty, some districts in Hampshire County voted last week to take such action.

On Sept. 9, Amherst’s Board of Health voted unanimously to add the COVID-19 vaccine to the list of mandatory inoculations for eligible students attending public schools. This is planned to be discussed during a Sept. 23 meeting of the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee.

Also on Sept. 9, the Northampton School Committee voted to enter collective bargaining over requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for all public school employees. If approved, the mandate would go into effect Oct. 22. During discussion, Northampton School Committee members touched on Lexington imposing a limited student vaccination mandate for extracurricular activities and sports, but Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz expressed concerns with creating a similar mandate and requested the committee explore the topic further at a future meeting.

While the Greenfield School Department has not implemented a vaccination mandate at this time, the School Committee did vote Sept. 13 to require weekly pool COVID-19 testing for students to participate in athletics. The district is considering a similar mandate for participation in all other extracurricular activities. Pool testing would not be mandatory for students to attend classes.

Zack DeLuca can be reached at zdeluca@recorder.com or 413-930-4579.


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