BRISTOL – During the Bristol Public Schools Board of Education meeting Wednesday evening, masking measures and covid precautions were once again a major point of discussion.
Letters for public comment were read by Board Chair Jennifer Dube before comments were made at a podium by visiting members of the public. For a little over 50 minutes, several area residents addressed concerns with masks being required in school facilities and what they felt was an overextension of government authority. Those commenting questioned the science of masks preventing the spread of covid, their effect on the development of children and whether the state government was stepping on parental rights.
Kristen Bevins said she had photos of teachers and staff not wearing masks at school facilities and provided them to the board. Superintendent Dr. Catherine Carbone said that if staff or faculty were not following school policies, she would address it through the appropriate measures.
As part of health and safety protocol review as part of the school district’s Innovate and Elevate Plan, BPS Deputy Superintendent Dr. Michael Dietter said that there had been a total of 31 positive covid cases found in district schools since the beginning of the year Eight of those cases were found in the high school band, six in the middle school band, five in kindergarten through eighth grade band and 12 cases in prekindergarten through fifth grade band.
Dietter said that information he was provided from the Bristol-Burlington Health Department puts Bristol’s daily average tested covid positivity rate at 28.7 cases per 100,000 tested. This is determined by a formula. The health district has identified 230 positive covid cases in Bristol since the start of the new school year and there have been four deaths.
At a previous board of education meeting, there was a request for more information regarding covid precaution protocols sent to Bristol-Burlington Health District Director of Health Marco Palmieri. He was unable to attend the Wednesday meeting but did respond to a series of questions in the form of a letter which was then read by Dietter.
Palmieri said that if state or federal mandates exist, like the state’s mask mandate, it defers to those in place. The district utilizes state and local data and information so it can access to create and discuss strategies with the appropriate professionals. It makes use of communications with the CDC, state board of education and department of health.
Should the state executive order for masks in schools end Sept. 30, the health district will continue to evaluate local and state data to formulate strategies it sees best in applying health decisions.
Palmieri said he believed that if masks were not required in schools, the definition of what makes close contacts in classrooms would not have been cut in half and would subject staff or students to potential quarantine, especially in areas involving students under 12. According to previous CDC standards, students are considered to be in close contact in a classroom if they are within three feet of each other for more than 15 minutes within a 24-hour period. Outside school facilities, that is extended to six feet. This came as a change in CDC advisory policies over the summer. Different quarantine rules would likely come about if mask choice is allowed, Palmieri said. He said that currently fully vaccinated individuals need not quarantine but those who are unvaccinated must quarantine if exposed with a few exceptions. The CDC in July recommended that children seated three feet away from someone who has been diagnosed with covid do not need to quarantine if they aren’t showing symptoms and wore masks in the classroom.
Carbone said that remote learning opportunities are offered to students in quarantine but she couldn't say that was the case with all school districts across the state.
Palmieri alluded to what determines a public health crisis is more than just counting the number of sickness cases. He said that hospitalization rates, death rates and counted case rates along with vaccination rates will be considered in health district decisions.
When asked if the health district anticipated a time when mitigation strategies would be lifted or an option for mask choice allowed, he responded.
“Yes, I very much hope that our infection rates drop and stay low so we can consider lifting some or all of our mitigation strategies. Unfortunately, our current rates are exponentially higher than just a few months ago, so time will tell. The number of children infected has increased significantly,” Palmieri said in the letter.
The director of health said the health district has access to the state’s immunization registries but the accuracy of it is dependent on factors out of the health district’s control.
When asked about the effectiveness of mask use, Palmieri responded that “mask use in healthcare and in other professions where airborne threats and respiratory risks are likely, have been used effectively for decades. The effectiveness is based on several factors, such as whether it is a mask or respirator, the material, NIOSH rating, and fit to face.”
“If folks remember, early on during this pandemic, there was a shortage of face masks, even for those working in hospitals surrounded by dozens of infectious patients. Most hospital workers had to make do with whatever type of face covering they could find. That is a pretty good endorsement of the effectiveness of even the simplest of masks and as being a good mitigation strategy,” he continued. He said the health district does take in mind the mental, social and health of a child when policy decisions.
“The entire public health community recognizes the mental/emotional/social impact this pandemic has on all populations, especially our most vulnerable. This is one of the main reasons why schools, sports and other extracurricular activities started on time and with full capacity,” he wrote in his letter.
Carbone said the school and its employees continue to be supportive of student behavioral and emotional health needs and help them access such services if requested.