According to August data included in Superintendent Julie Hackett's latest community update, a total of 78.3% of Lexington High School students are fully vaccinated. (Courtesy of John Phelan, Wikimedia Commons)

Superintendent Julie Hackett also wrote that safety guidelines can be reevaluated once LHS reaches 90% vaccination, and noted plans for a vaccination clinic at LHS Sept. 10. Labor and management agree on LPS guidelines for the fall, but disagree on whether LPS staff are legally required to be vaccinated by Memorandum of Agreement contract language— still, the LEA feels the district has respected the agreement so far, and LEA president Avon Lewis previously estimated that over 90% of LEA members are vaccinated.

LexObserver heard from some LPS leaders and community members about the new guidance.

Lexington Public Schools students, staff and visitors must wear well-fitting masks indoors this year regardless of vaccination status, consistent with the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance but diverging from the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education guidance released Friday.

“Unfortunately, the pandemic is not going away anytime soon, and we will face continued challenges in the upcoming school year,” Superintendent Julie Hackett wrote in her Aug. 2 update, which included a Frequently Asked Questions section dated July 30. The new mask requirements went into effect yesterday in all LPS facilities, but do not apply when individuals are working “alone or in a segregated space” or outdoors, according to the update.

Hackett acknowledged that this new requirement is not welcome news for everyone: “Many would like to lose the masks and return to normal as quickly as possible. We will get there eventually, but it is going to take more time.” She stressed that returning to universal masking would be a key part of the effort to facilitate safe in-person learning. “Our primary goal this year is to ensure that we have as much uninterrupted in person learning as possible. Masking, along with other layered mitigation strategies, is one way to achieve this,” she wrote.

Whereas the CDC updated its guidance to support universal masking in schools following the release of guidance supporting this measure by the American Academy of Pediatrics, DESE’s latest guidance does not require masking, except on school buses (per federal public health order) and in school health offices. DESE “strongly recommend[s]” masks for students kindergarten through grade 6, as children under age 12 are currently ineligible for the vaccine. This recommendation also extends to unvaccinated students grade 7 and above, and to all unvaccinated staff and visitors. On the other hand, DESE recommends that schools allow vaccinated students to attend school unmasked, while also noting that “any child or family who prefers to mask at school should be supported in this choice.” DESE’s previous May 27 guidance had not specified any masking recommendations, even for unvaccinated students. 

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health also stopped short of recommending masks indoors for all vaccinated people. Instead, they recommended Friday that fully vaccinated people wear masks in indoor spaces besides their homes only if they have a specific high-risk circumstance ⁠— meaning “if you have a weakened immune system, or if you are at increased risk for severe disease because of your age or underlying medical condition, or if someone in your household has a weakened immune system, is at increased risk for severe disease, or is unvaccinated.” 

Hackett, Lexington School Committee Chair Kathleen Lenihan, Town Board of Health Chair Wendy Heiger-Bernays and Lexington Education Association President Avon Lewis had already expressed their support of the CDC’s universal masking guidance last week, prior to the release of the new DESE guidance, as LexObserver reported. 

Heiger-Bernays disagreed with the latest DESE guidance on masking: “DESE is both inconsistent (why was it ok for DESE to rely only on CDC guidance earlier in the pandemic – because that’s what DESE wanted?) and DESE provides no legitimate rationale for not masking,” she wrote in an email to LexObserver. (The parenthetical is part of Heiger-Bernay’s direct quote.)

“DESE provides no legitimate rationale for not masking.”

— Lexington Board of Health Chair Wendy Heiger-Bernays

Lexington School Committee Member Sara Cuthbertson also criticized the DESE guidance, and instead embraced the CDC’s guidance for universal masking. “I am glad that we will be following CDC guidance and requiring universal masking for the time being,” she wrote in an email to LexObserver, citing the increasing case numbers in Lexington and the “data rapidly emerging on the Delta variant” even as more LPS students will be back in the classroom this fall than were in-person last spring. 

While 5 cases of COVID-19 were recorded in Lexington as of July 23, that jumped to 14 cases as of July 30, according to the Town’s COVID-19 dashboard.

“As a School Committee member who happens to be a parent of two LPS students, one fully vaccinated and one currently age-ineligible, I can understand the disappointment that we will be entering another school year that isn’t quite what we would like to see, particularly for those who have done their part by getting vaccinated,” Cuthbertson wrote. “However, masks remain a readily-available and effective tool to mitigate the chances of school disruption, both for individuals and the entire system.” 

Lexington’s strong local leadership and collaboration with the town’s BOH mean it does not need to rely as heavily as some other districts on DESE guidance for its local decision-making, according to Cuthbertson. With cases on the rise again throughout Massachusetts, “and with DESE guidance that leaves the door open for only voluntary masking in school systems, I have significant concerns about what could happen across the state,” she wrote. “Passing along the burden to local officials under the guise of local control is unnecessarily increasing risks to many communities and could prolong this period of pandemic schooling in Massachusetts.” 

A DESE representative could not be reached for comment by press time. The DESE guidance cited high vaccination rates and low hospitalization rates in Massachusetts relative to the rest of the country, and added, “even for those students not yet vaccinated, the apparent risk of COVID-19 to children remains small. These factors continue to reinforce that many previously instituted COVID-19 mitigation measures in school settings are no longer necessary.”

As of today, a total of 73% of Massachusetts residents have at least one vaccine dose, while 64% are fully vaccinated. The state has seen a 190% increase in COVID-19 cases over the past 14 days, and an 82% increase in hospitalizations over the same period, according to the New York Times.

While virus transmission in Middlesex County was rated as “moderate” by the CDC as of last Thursday, it is now rated as “substantial”: one tier higher than before, and the same tier of risk as neighboring Suffolk County. This means that the CDC recommends residents in Middlesex County mask indoors regardless of vaccination status; this recommendation applies to any area with a “substantial” or “high” level of COVID-19 transmission, or an area where 50 or more cases are reported per 100,000 people. Though 65.9% of Middlesex County’s residents are fully vaccinated, and 72.6% have at least one dose, there were 53.55 cases per 100,000 residents over the last seven days, as of Aug. 1. In Suffolk County, there were 73.89 cases per 100,000 residents over the same period.

“While virus transmission in Middlesex County was rated as ‘moderate’ by the CDC as of last Thursday, it is now rated as ‘substantial’: one tier higher, and the same tier of risk as neighboring Suffolk County.”

LPS is following the CDC guidance rather than the DESE and MA DPH guidance because they have followed this guidance throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Hackett wrote in the LPS guidance. The district will continue to do so “in an effort to avoid confusion and keep students in school,” she wrote. In a follow-up message, Hackett wrote that LPS has consistently followed CDC and Harvard public health guidance related to COVID-19 to a greater extent than it has followed DESE guidance.

Hackett reiterated that in-person learning is required by DESE for all students, and remote learning is no longer an option, per the May 27 DESE guidance. 

Last week, parents expressed mixed reactions to the prospect of universal masking at LPS, LexObserver previously reported

Miranda Cohen, mother of an unvaccinated rising 1st grader and a fully vaccinated rising 7th grader at LPS, is “not interested in advocating against mask wearing. Our biggest concerns are that kids are in school full time and that all of their teachers are teaching in school and not remotely,” she wrote in an email to LexObserver Monday. Still, “Masks do inhibit the kids’ ability to understand and to be understood and I fear they limit social development, so I hope that the school district weighs these risks as well going forward,” she wrote. For this reason, she would prefer having only unvaccinated individuals wearing masks instead of universal masking, she added in a follow-up email.

Yuan Zhou, mother of an unvaccinated rising 3rd grader and a fully vaccinated rising 8th grader at LPS, is “more toward supporting universal masking,” she wrote in an email to LexObserver. “As we are seeing the confirmed case number rocket up again, I really think people should wear masks indoors no matter whether they are vaccinated or not,” she wrote.

Lexington Education Association President Avon Lewis supports Hackett’s message, she wrote in an email to LexObserver. She had the opportunity to provide feedback while it was in draft form, she noted. 

“We are in agreement that, at this point, masking is a profoundly effective way of reducing transmission and together with other mitigations such as ventilation, we hope it will make it possible to have 25 kids plus a number of adults – typically between one and five depending on the room – in an 800 square foot classroom,” Lewis wrote.

While mask-wearing enforcement will certainly entail some challenges, “we’ll deal with it just like we did last year,” Hackett wrote in a follow-up message to LexObserver. “Our challenges tend to come from adults who don’t live in our community,” she added. “Our students are thoughtful and smart, and they don’t get as caught up in all of the political drama. They want to be in school and learning without interruption. If wearing masks a while longer is what it takes, I know our kids will be up to the challenge!”

Within her update, Hackett included the latest Lexington High School vaccination numbers. As of August 2021, 78.3% of all LHS students are fully vaccinated: A high of 84.9% of 9th graders are fully vaccinated, while a low of 75.3% of 10th graders are fully vaccinated; 76.1% and 76.7% of 11th and 12th graders respectively are fully vaccinated. The district is in the process of updating vaccination numbers for grades 7 and 8, Hackett wrote in a follow-up message to LexObserver.

Once Lexington High School is 90% fully vaccinated, “we can revisit the restrictions with health experts,” Hackett wrote in the update. 

According to the update, LPS staff members and volunteers are required to be vaccinated unless they have proof of a medical or religious exemption. But according to LexObserver’s previous reporting, while Memorandum of Agreement II Supplement 1 from Jan. 28, 2021 does state that employees must be vaccinated before Aug. 30 unless they have a religious or medical exemption or lack access to a vaccine, the document also specifies that unvaccinated employees without either of the two valid exemptions “will be required to wear a K-N95 mask at all times,” except when eating and drinking, in addition to adhering to safety precautions including social distancing. An updated MOA supplement from May 2021, fully ratified July 27, specified that unvaccinated staff could wear “well-fitting masks” and “double masks” in place of K-N95 masks. 

“We worked with legal counsel to craft the language, and I think it’s fair to say labor and management have slightly different views on how it’s interpreted,” Hackett wrote in a message to LexObserver. 

LEA President Lewis agreed with Hackett’s statement that labor and management view this language differently. Lewis also estimated last month that “north of 90% of the LEA members [are] vaccinated at this point,” as LexObserver previously reported.

“The LEA led LPS to be one of the first communities in the Commonwealth to negotiate vaccine language,” Lewis wrote in an email to LexObserver. “We, the LEA and the LPS together, have updated that language once and if we need to do it again, we will.  However, this is something we have to do together. Neither group can change the rules unilaterally.”

“We, the LEA and the LPS together, have updated that language once and if we need to do it again, we will.  However, this is something we have to do together. Neither group can change the rules unilaterally.”

— Lexington Education Association President Avon Lewis

More MOAs will certainly be necessary this year, Lewis added, “because conditions are not even close to back to normal.” But, “for now we have the language we have, and if either party behaves in a way that the other feels is inconsistent with the agreement, we have legal and contractual tools to address those concerns.”

So far, “the district has not behaved in a way that LEA feels is inconsistent with our Agreements. If they do, we will, of course, defend the rights of our members,” Lewis wrote.

LPS will continue a few other preventative measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in addition to universal masking indoors.

For instance, students will be required to practice physical distancing “while eating indoors and during defined activities.” Such “defined activities” may include “large group indoor events or activities in some cases,” according to a follow-up message from Hackett.

While eating, LPS “will do our best to maintain six foot physical distances” but will not require physical distancing otherwise. Due to the physical limitations on LPS spaces, it may not be possible to maintain a full six feet of distance at all eating times, so LPS also plans to make use of outdoor space when weather permits. Heiger-Bernays and Hackett previously described the importance of these health and safety measures.

Per Hackett’s update, the relaxed physical distancing requirements extend to Lexington Performing Arts, though students will still be required to wear masks. “We will try out this new approach (decreased physical distances) with the understanding that if changes are needed, we will make them immediately,” Hackett wrote. But, due to evidence about some transmission of the Delta variant even by vaccinated individuals, “LPS must continue to exercise caution with large public gatherings,” Hackett added.

Students can also expect assigned seating “wherever possible,” including in classrooms and on buses, as this remains important for contact tracing. Hackett also recommended that students sit at desks instead of tables to facilitate distancing where possible, but noted that tables may be necessary in certain cases.

In addition to the requirement of masking on school buses, windows must be open at least four inches at all times, Hackett noted.

The latest DESE guidance also specified that districts should “maintain or establish a robust plan for COVID-19 testing in schools,” including both diagnostic testing and screening testing, and asserted that it would offer these services at no cost to districts.

It remains uncertain whether Lexington will continue a pooled saliva testing program. As previously reported by LexObserver, LPS dedicated $371,000 to pooled saliva testing last year, “with limited participation,” as Hackett wrote in her community update. DESE specified in its new guidance that it would provide funding for districts in need of testing support. “We will continue to explore appropriate testing strategies, including those being offered by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education,” Hackett wrote in her update.

The latest DESE guidance also encouraged on-site vaccination clinics during summer orientation or when classes begin. LPS will host a vaccination clinic at Lexington High School on Friday, Sept. 10 from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. for all LPS students, staff members and their family members, and Lexington residents.

LPS does not recommend any restrictions on domestic travel for vaccinated people, and instead recommends that LPS families and staff follow state guidance. State guidance on travel points to CDC guidance; for unvaccinated people, the CDC recommends delaying travel until full vaccination, but if unvaccinated individuals must travel, recommendations include a COVID-19 test 3-5 days after travel and self-quarantine for one week after travel.

Prior to coming to school, staff will be asked to complete an attestation of wellness; if they have symptoms, they will stay home from school. Similarly, families should expect to assess their children for symptoms every day before school using a symptom checker form

“The pandemic will continue to challenge us, but there is so much to look forward to in the upcoming school year,” Hackett wrote in her update.

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