Following heated public comment, Frontier and Union 38 schools adopt indoor mask policy

  • Frontier Regional School in South Deerfield STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Students bundle up with the windows cracked for fresh air in a middle school science class at Frontier Regional School in South Deerfield in January. Following a testy Zoom meeting Wednesday with more than 200 members of the public in attendance, health officials and school committee members approved a policy requiring students, faculty and staff at all five Frontier Regional and Union 38 district schools to wear a mask inside the buildings when school starts next week. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Monday, August 30, 2021

Following a testy Zoom meeting Wednesday that drew 200 people, health officials and school committee members approved a policy requiring students, faculty and staff at all five Frontier Regional and Union 38 district schools to wear a mask inside the buildings when school starts next week.

The policy — the same policy in place at the end of last school year in June — passed at a meeting featuring Deerfield, Sunderland, Whately, Conway and Frontier Regional school committees, along with all four towns’ boards of health. Given the high attendance, those who wished to provide public comment were allowed two minutes to speak.

Members of the community voiced their frustration with the continued use of masks. Some wanted to know what the endgame was with masks and when it will be acceptable for students to attend school unmasked, which Darius Modestow, superintendent of Frontier Regional and Union 38 school districts, said was a “very good question to ask.”

Jill Dickinson, who has three children in the district, said masks restrict the breathing of children.

“I can’t believe I’m sitting here begging for my child to have the right to breathe fresh air during the school day,” Dickinson said. “We truly live in an upside-down world.”

Another woman, who only identified herself as Jessica and has a son going into second grade, said forcing masks on children is akin to the atrocities of slavery.

“We the people are being oppressed and being forced to do something we don’t want to do,” she said. “This is the same theory as slavery.”

This comment faced pushback from school committee members and residents. Deerfield School Committee member Erica Boyd Jacob, who is Black, said wearing masks has no similarities to slavery.

“It is something that I do find offensive to try and make those similarities if they haven’t experienced that,” Boyd Jacob said. “We may have family or ancestors who have lived through these things and have read accounts of it. It was horrific and it’s nothing like mask-wearing.”

Sunderland resident Diane Mercomes said it was a ridiculous comment to make.

“Don’t say that kind of stupid stuff about this being akin to slavery,” Mercomes said. “It is not.”

Public comment was closed after that conversation and Deerfield Board of Health Chair and Select Board member Carolyn Shores Ness motioned to require masks in both Frontier Regional and Deerfield Elementary schools, which the other towns’ boards of health and school committees also adopted.

“I think at the end of last year we were definitely looking forward to a normal year,” Shores Ness said. “I think the schools are making a real effort to have a normal-learning year, with the exception of having to wear masks.”

The five school committees agreed to revisit the mask policy at least monthly based on COVID-19 testing and vaccination numbers. Modestow said the experience of working through the COVID-19 pandemic last school year will “absolutely” help them work against the delta variant.

“Social distancing is reduced from last year,” he noted. “We’re trying to go back to a ‘regular’ school day.”

Regarding the friction in the community when it comes to the mask debate, Modestow said he would rather have the state’s medical boards make decisions, rather than leave it up to local school board members who may not have medical expertise.

“I am disappointed,” Modestow said, “the state felt it was the best practice for each town to battle it out. … We are fortunate to have the board of health involved.”

In other business, the Frontier Regional School Committee approved a motion to require pool COVID-19 testing for all students involved in extracurricular activities, such as theater or athletics. He said current MIAA protocols allow for students to play outdoor sports without masks.

While public comment was already closed at this point, a few residents had made earlier remarks about pool testing. Shelley Yago said it is wrong for the school to potentially take away activities from students if they don’t get tested and claimed the nasal swabs contain carcinogens.

“To whoever made and supported this motion, shame on you,” Yago said during public comment. “How dare you use our children as pawns and as leverage, and threaten taking away activities that they are passionate about in order to achieve the desired outcome you want.”

Modestow said pool testing was his idea and all concerns can be directed to him. He said the district cannot mandate testing among the entire student body and he came up with a simple phrase to describe why it helps athletes and theater students.

“Swab and save the season,” Modestow said during the meeting.

He noted athletics extend far beyond the field and this allows them to safely get the full team experience.

“Our varsity athletes, they share rides together, they share hugs together. It’s not just about what happens on the playing field. They are a unit,” Modestow said. “That’s what makes those things so special.”

Speaking by phone Thursday, Modestow said people were going to be disappointed whether the schools adopted a mask policy or not, and it is sad to see the community turn against itself.

“I hate seeing a community divided at the start of a school year,” he said. “The start of the school year is supposed to be a joyous time.”

Modestow said starting the school year with masks will be the “least disruptive” to education because the students understand the routines as they have been masked in school since last September.

“We successfully made ground with education with masks on, I think we’ll be OK,” he said. “My goal is to create an avenue to remove masks. Whether that’s through vaccinations or testing rates, that’s what we’re going to iron out.”