atrubia@ricentral.com

NORTH KINGSTOWN – Ahead of the beginning of the school year, the North Kingstown School Committee approved a new mask wearing policy for staff and students, a preventative measure taken to protect against the spread of COVID-19.

While the school committee first discussed the mask wearing policy in mid-August, members decided to table it until its most recent meeting on Aug. 29, where they officially approved the policy, though with some modifications. The policy was put together and approved based on guidance and instruction from the state.

The policy was modified based on updated information from the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH) and Department of Education (RIDE), as well as concerns raised by committee members, building principals and parents.

Some of the concerns surrounded mask wearing exceptions, such as the feasibility of students removing masks for eating or drinking, while remaining six feet apart from one another.

“What we did is we listened to all of the information that we’ve been receiving from RIDOH, RIDE, parents, members of the school committee and building principals,” said Mary Ann Caroll, an attorney for the school department. “We are hoping that there are times during the day that students can take off their masks, because that was an issue. But we’re going to try to keep it within the necessary distance.”

After modifications, and with the school year beginning on Sept. 14, the committee ultimately approved the mask wearing policy.

“Basically what we’re looking at is a policy that states you wear your mask, except when it’s a situation where it’s safe to remove it,” school committee chair Greg Blasbalg explained.

The purpose, according to the mask wearing policy, is to protect the health and safety of everyone in school buildings.

“Due to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, the health and safety of all employees and students is crucial to our school environment,” the policy reads.

“The health and safety of employees and students is our highest priority,” the policy continues. “All employees and students are now required to wear a mask or cloth face-covering that covers his or her mouth and nose at all times while in the school, on school grounds or on a school bus.”

Under the new policy, students are expected to come to school each day with their own mask or cloth face-covering, and continue wearing the mask all day, except in certain circumstances.  

Exceptions include: students whose health or safety is put at risk by wearing a mask, though medical documentation is required; students who are in a classroom seated at least six feet from any other student; students who are eating or drinking, and six feet apart, provided they perform the necessary hand hygiene and replace the mask when they are done; and students who are taking a mask break, whether outside or in a large room where they can be situated six feet apart.

Any student who refuses to wear a face mask or face covering will be removed from school and required to participate in distance learning, according to the policy.

Similarly, school employees must also come to work each day with their own mask or cloth face-covering, with masks provided if an employee forgets theirs.  

Exceptions for employees can be made if there is a medically documented health risk; employees who work on their own in an enclosed space, such as an office; and employees who wish to eat or drink, provided they are spaced six feet apart from others.

School committee member Jacob Mather, who previously expressed concerns about the feasibility of allowing students to remove their masks safely, even for short exceptions, said that the newest iteration of the policy was “much better,” though he added that it might not be enforceable.

He went on to say that, while there were still “significant issues” surrounding the accommodation of distance learning during lunch or drills, he said he believed in the philosophy and purpose behind the policy.  

“I do believe a mask policy is very important, I agree with the philosophy and purpose of it,” he said. “And not having a policy is way more dangerous.”

Caroll said that, with ever-changing guidance coming from RIDE and RIDOH, the policy in its current form was the best the school department could put together.

“The guidance keeps changing […] and we’re getting a lot of different information,” she said. “Based on the information we have right now, this is the best we can do with a policy.”

Blasbalg said the policy represented a “pretty good balance.”

“I think this is a pretty good balance between a 100 percent no-exception rule and one that takes reasonable exceptions,” he said.

For more information on the school department’s reopening plan, visit www.nksd.net.

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