‘Going with the science’ cited by several when explaining their individual votes
Not all of them spoke before the vote, but it was eminently clear that all the members of the Malden School Committee thought long and hard on the issue of the mask mandate for students and staff in Malden Public Schools buildings. Though the vote was 7-2 to rescind the COVID-19-spurred mask mandate, there was a unanimous element. Every one of the members who did speak, including Mayor Gary Christenson, stated it was “one of the toughest decisions” they had faced as an elected official.
Two of the newly elected School Committee members, Ward 4’s Dawn Macklin and Keith Bernard of Ward 7, said they felt strongly enough against lifting the mask mandate to become the two-vote minority opposed to the eventual decision to rescind the mandate and make mask-wearing optional.
“This is a tough decision for myself and other School Committee members,” Bernard said, in his first time speaking at an in-person meeting since being elected in November. “Speaking in terms of what I’ve heard from students and families, there is a lot of anxiety out there [on lifting the mask mandate].
“This [COVID-19] is a virus and at this point, it’s a little too soon,” Bernard added. “Keeping masks and face coverings right now is better for our kids and their families.”
Macklin echoed some of Bernard’s sentiments, also stating opposition to lifting the mask mandate. She also expressed concern students “might be ostracized or bullied” if the mandate were lifted and they decided to continue coming to school wearing the mask. “I’ve gone back-and-forth on this issue, and I was against the February 28 date [to lift the mandate] from the start,” Macklin said. “I still worry for our younger students, who are still not eligible [by age] to be vaccinated. I’m still on the fence. If we made it optional there would still be those who still wear the mask. There is a possibility those who still wore the mask might be ostracized or bullied; that is why it is concerning to me to end the mask mandate.”
The majority of School Committee members were in favor of lifting the mandate, though emphasizing they had thoroughly reviewed both sides of the debate, including the third newcomer, Sharyn Rose Zeiberg of Ward 8. “The most important part of this issue is, ‘How do we protect our most vulnerable students?’” Zeiberg said. “[The Superintendent] has told us we would still have [safety] protocols in place, precautions in place, cleaning measures and masks still available at all the schools.”
“I believe it is important for addressing students’ social-emotional health to follow [the optional mask policy] being considered,” Zeiberg said before the vote. “We must be following the science, and a lot has changed in [COVID-19] numbers over the past month.”
Some will be elated, some will be worried if we drop the mask mandate, but we will still have many resources for our students and staff in our schools,” Zeiberg said.
School Committee Vice Chair Adam Weldai (Ward 5) joined with all of his colleagues in thanking the many residents, particularly caregivers of Malden Public Schools students, who contacted him via email, phone voice and text messages regarding the mask policy. Chairperson/Mayor Christenson was also specific with his thanks to the many Malden caregivers who took the time to weigh in on the mask mandate decision.
“I would like to express my gratitude for the many constituents and caregivers. This is something on which we have gotten more emails and attention in quite a while,” Weldai said.
Weldai then expressed dissatisfaction with how the mask mandate in schools issue has been handled at the state level; namely, leaving the decision in the hands of local communities. “This is another example of failure of leadership from the state,” Weldai said.
The School Committee Vice Chairperson said he had expressed “my own set of worries and concerns to the Superintendent this week” and that the two of them [Supt. Ligia Noriega-Murphy] had conferred on the aspect, if voted, of “undoing the policy and its rollout.”
“If students and staff continue to wear masks, we are not encouraging only [the sentiment of] ‘we are so happy to see all the smiling faces.’ Everyone is making this decision for their own family, though our [School Committee] decision is based on the greater good,” Weldai said, referring to potential situations where those who continue to wear masks might be criticized by those who chose to no longer wear them.
“Based on scientific data, not feelings or other [aspects], we are ready to make this move,” Weldai said, in endorsing lifting the mask mandate. “We do have a lot of work post-tonight, though.”
Supt. Noriega-Murphy, later in the meeting after the vote was taken, did stress that “respect of individual choices” would be her and the Malden Public Schools’ staff focus following the School Committee’s vote.
Ward 3 School Committee member Jennifer Spadafora said, “Those who contacted me, it was a 50-50 split [on continuing the mask mandate or lifting it]. It is one of the hardest decisions I have had to make.”
The third-term School Committeewoman added, “I want to thank the administration for the weekly updates [on COVID-19 cases in the schools]. In January, we didn’t know what was coming, but now we see the cases dramatically declining. It is time we give it a shot, give it a chance and keep moving forward in a positive way.”
The Ward 3 representative made another point: “Some of our most vulnerable students have regressed in some ways in terms of social interaction [under the mask policy]. They have not been able to see if a teacher is smiling or not, and this lack of seeing facial expressions does not allow them to see all that a teacher is conveying.”
“It works the other way, also, as teachers do not get to see the full expressions of their students,” Spadafora said.
Spadafora made the motion for the vote to rescind the Malden Public Schools mask policy, and it passed, 7-2, and went into effect immediately.
As of Tuesday morning, the first day of classes after the School Committee vote, students and staff were no longer required to wear facemasks, as it became optional to do so in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.