Masks remain optional for Worcester Public Schools

·4 min read

WORCESTER — When students and teachers return for the first day of school this year, they will continue to have the option of whether or not to wear a mask.

Per the recommendation of the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), as well as after meeting with district leaders, Superintendent Rachel H. Monárrez confirmed Thursday that the district would be continuing with the COVID-19 protocols that were in place when the school year ended in June.

More: State eases recommended COVID-19 precautions in K-12 schools

"It's the same as how school closed," Monárrez said. "There doesn't appear to be a need to do any kind of mandating of masks...We're gonna really try to maintain our current mitigation strategies and go that route."

In Worcester, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, COVID-19 community level remains "low" and case numbers continue to trend downward.

If the district were to implement a mask mandate again, it would be based on a recommendation from the state education department, as well as "the state and local medical experts informing us," rather than based on how numbers are trending, said Chief Financial and Operations Officer Brian Allen.

Allen said the district is only tracking the numbers of staff members working during the summer, so the numbers Monárrez will bring to the School Committee at its meeting on Aug.18 will only be for summer staff.

They will begin tracking the rest of the district's staff and student cases once the school year begins, he said.

Masks, PPE to be provided

The district will continue to provide PPE, such as hand sanitizer, as well as medical masks to staff and students who may choose to opt into wearing a mask during the school day.

Allen said that although the state stopped funding the test-and-stay program, the district will continue to provide tests to teachers and staff who are experiencing symptoms throughout the year.

The test-and-stay program allowed students exposed to the virus to remain in school if they tested negative. If positive, the student would be sent home.

Teachers who are symptomatic and test positive will continue to consult with School Safety Director Robert F. Pezzella.

"I give them the timelines that they will be out of work," Pezzella said. "Going into the new school year, as of right now, that will continue as well."

He said that schools are still equipped with plexiglass barriers, both portable and permanently installed, to protect students and staff from potential exposure to the virus. However, a school is able to request to have the plexiglass barriers taken down.

Unlike the plexiglass, the air purifiers that were installed, permanently in the HVAC systems as well as portable units, will remain in schools, Allen said.

He also said that the district will also continue to operate medical waiting rooms staffed with nurses and other medical professionals to evaluate and assist students who are exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms.

The medical waiting rooms, which were created during the COVID-19 pandemic, are similar but separate from a traditional nurse's office where students and staff go when experiencing COVID-19 symptoms.

"The intention is for symptomatic students to present themselves at the medical waiting room instead of going to the nurse's office, where they may be dealing with other issues like diabetes management, and so forth," Allen said.

Monitoring for monkeypox

As monkeypox continues to spread throughout the country, including two confirmed cases in Worcester and almost 200 cases in Massachusetts, Monárrez said the district is monitoring the situation closely.

"There is going to be guidance again from DESE that our nurses will be aware of to help guide them and how to identify it," she said. "We're just going to follow what is being put out, but we're not concerned about it right now. We're watching."

She said that while the district is monitoring it and being cautious, they are not going to be "jumping into any kind of policy that is unnecessary."

"We just want to give people the right information they need," Monárrez said. "We were happy to hear that DESE is going to provide that guidance...in collaboration with the Department of Public Health at the state level."

This article originally appeared on Telegram & Gazette: Masks remain optional for Worcester public schools