The Johnston School Committee is set to vote Thursday, Feb. 17, on a revised mask policy for staff and students.
A special meeting of the committee was announced Tuesday, calling for an updated mask policy effective March 4, following Rhode Island Gov. Dan McKee’s lifting of the statewide school mask mandate.
“I believe the committee will decide between mandatory masks in school or as other districts have done, strongly recommend but not mandate masks,” Johnston Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Bernard DiLullo Jr. said Tuesday.
Last Wednesday, McKee’s office and the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH) announced plans to lift the executive order requiring masking indoors.
They also instructed school districts to make masking decisions at the local level.
State officials cited a steady improvement in COVID-19 case and hospitalization data across Rhode Island.
Officially, the statewide school mask mandate will now expire on March 4.
Johnston will decide Feb. 17, at 6 p.m. in the Ferri Middle School Library (the meeting will be held both in person and by video/audio conference call).
By Friday, Feb. 11, the number of masks on faces in public spaces across Rhode Island dropped dramatically.
The Johnston School Committee voted last summer to make mask wearing voluntary in schools. That decision was eventually usurped by McKee’s executive order, as virus counts spiked locally.
“Thanks to Rhode Islanders stepping up to do the right thing, together we’ve made considerable progress against COVID-19 and the winter surge,” McKee said last week. “Based on our decreasing case and hospitalization numbers, our team at the Department of Health feels confident in our plan to safely shift masking guidance for both schools and public settings as we move into an endemic management phase of the virus.”
McKee’s office said the decision to shift policies was made “in collaboration with the Department of Health and based on current COVID-19 data.”
“Since peaking at approximately 6,700 cases a day in early January, Rhode Island’s case numbers have decreased by more than 94 percent,” according to a press release from McKee’s office. “Since peaking at 598 hospitalizations in mid-January, Rhode Island’s number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients has decreased by approximately 52 percent. (Hospitalization trends tend to lag behind case trends.) During the week of Jan. 2, there were 9,931 K-12 cases in Rhode Island, compared to 1,547 K-12 cases the week of Jan. 30.”
It will now be up to “cities, towns, and school committees” to implement their own masking policies using updated RIDOH and Department of Education recommendations.
Masking will now be just one of several mitigation measures, like testing, social distancing and symptom screening.
“Given the complexities of developing and implementing new COVID-19 policies in schools, the current masking requirement for schools will remain in effect for three weeks longer than the requirement for businesses and venues of assembly,” according to the press release. “During these three additional weeks, school leaders will be able to develop masking policies after reviewing the updated recommendations from RIDOH and RIDE and after gathering input from families. This will also give families additional time to get their children vaccinated.”
Masks will still be required for people in public transportation stations and while on public transportation, including school buses, due to federal requirements, according to McKee’s office.
“Thanks to the availability of treatment and vaccine, severe COVID-19 illness is now largely a treatable, preventable disease,” said Interim Director of Health James McDonald. “We are also seeing that the Omicron variant is often resulting in a much less serious course of illness for many people. Given this reality, the shifts we are announcing today represent a measured approach that will help our schools and our community regain a much-needed sense of normalcy.”
The state still recommends masking for “immunocompromised individuals and for those who are not up to date on their COVID-19 vaccination.”
The state defines “being up to date” as having “received all the doses you are eligible to receive (for example, you have received a booster dose if you are eligible to receive a booster dose).”
“With cases rapidly declining and continued efforts to improve vaccination rates across the state, were optimistic about the direction were heading,” said Education Commissioner Anglica Infante-Green. “Over the next month, we’ll be working closely with districts to help them review the data, connect with the Department of Health, and create guidance that works for their school communities.”
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