District is yet to make a final decision on mask policy for the school year

SOUTH KINGSTOWN — It’s still up in the air as to whether or not students will need to mask up this coming fall, but some teachers and parents are already pleading with the school committee not to require face coverings in the classroom. 

South Kingstown High School Mathematics Teacher Kim Lanoway said having to wear a mask got in the way of her students’ learning and quashed her enthusiasm for coming into the classroom each day.

“The mask literally dampened my spirit,” Lanoway said. “I love teaching, I love math — but the kids didn’t get that from me this year.”

The masks made it difficult for everyone to hear each other, she said, and most likely discouraged students from speaking up and asking questions when they were lost. It also prevented Lanoway from building meaningful relationships with her students. 

“I didn’t get to know them,” she said. “I didn’t see their faces.” 

South Kingstown High School World Language Teacher Maddalena Cirignotta echoed these sentiments, expressing concern for how the pandemic has adversely affected students’ learning.

She hopes to see the district make masking optional for the coming school year, allowing vulnerable families the ability to still mask up their children, she said, but providing relief to those who want to be freed of the burden. 

The mother of three said she has serious concerns about sending her young children back into school everyday, wearing a mask. 

“For me, I’m concerned to the point that I’m not willing to send my children to school again, for seven hours a day, in a mask,” Cirignotta said. “If that means unenrolling them in the district and sending them somewhere else, I’m convicted strongly enough about that —that parents need choice — that my family would do so.” 

She stressed that there hasn’t been a single child in Rhode Island who’s died from any form of the variants beginning to emerge, and that transmission rates among young children who are still not old enough to receive the vaccine are very low. According to Cirignotta, requiring children to wear masks provides “very little benefit to them, personally.” 

“The whole reason we were requiring children to mask in the first place was because of vulnerable adults,” Cirignotta said. “Those vulnerable adults have options. They can wear a mask, they can get a vaccine, they can stay out of certain high-risk situations, but the burden of this virus shouldn’t be on our children’s shoulders any longer.” 

She wasn’t the only parent in the audience on Tuesday evening who felt this way.

Phil and Courtney Johnson of Wakefield said it broke their hearts to see their two children have to mask up every morning before going into the school building.

They commend the district and the teachers for how well they’ve handled the pandemic, but believe “the time has come to return to normalcy.” 

“The daily turmoil and struggle of this past year was so evident on our 7-year-old son’s face as he went off to school each day,” Phil Johnson said. “He wanted to see his friends and his teacher talk, smile, laugh — just have basic learning interactions with each other that wearing a mask prevents.” 

“Our daughter would deflate every time she’d put her face covering on, right before getting out of the car to head to school,” he added. “It’s affected both of our children emotionally, psychologically and academically.” 

Other parents expressed their concerns for how mask wearing might be affecting the social and emotional development of their children — never mind not being able to hear their teachers and classmates, or reading their lips while they learn new words and sounds. 

The school committee also heard from a second grade student, who asked them not to make her wear a mask again next year. She was not wearing a mask during the meeting, and neither were two other young girls sitting in the audience. 

Only one parent expressed apprehension over lifting the mask mandate entirely. 

“While it may be appropriate for some of our older students who have already had the opportunity to become vaccinated to go on into the next school year not wearing masks — that may be something we all choose — I don’t believe it’s appropriate for our younger students until all of them have had the opportunity to become vaccinated,” said Cadence Hansen. 

“Until they have the opportunity, I believe the buildings in which they reside should remain under the mask mandate,” she added. “Maybe we lift it in November or December, depending on the vaccine’s roll out, but I just want to make sure all students are safe, and feel safe in school.” 

School committee member Kate Macinanti said she agrees with all the sentiments that were shared by parents that evening, sharing that she’s noticed the negative, emotional side effects in her own children. When the time comes to take a vote, Macinanti said she really hopes the committee will look at “pushing back on a mask mandate.”

She’s in favor of giving families the option of whether or not to mask up during the school day. 

“If there are parents who believe their kids are at risk, or they’re more comfortable, or whatever reason a parent might have, they should be permitted to wear a mask if they want,” Macinanti said. “But my personal take on it, and when it comes time to move forward with it — and if that means pushing back against the state — I feel like we need to do that.”

“In my opinion, it should be up to the parents to determine whether or not their children are masked,” she added. 

School Committee Vice Chair Michelle Brousseau shared that she was a bit torn on the matter, and echoed sentiments from fellow committee member Melissa Boyd, who hopes to see input from teachers before coming to a decision. She expressed major concerns for those who might be immunocompromised — especially since the school will not be offering any distance learning alternatives next year. 

“The key here is to keep our students safe,” said School Committee Chair Paula Whitford. 

While she’s not opposed to the option of letting parents decide whether or not their child wears a mask, Whitford stressed that hopes to see those same parents allow their children to be regularly tested. 

In other business that evening, the school committee also approved updates to the student privacy policy — in light of the student directory information that was used by a third party to send political mailers to students earlier this year. 

The committee also appointed Director of Curriculum, Learning & Innovation Ginamarie Masiello to be the next assistant superintendent. Masiello has been temporarily holding the reins since former Superintendent Linda Savastano stepped aside two weeks ago.

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