Westford schools set to drop mask mandate


Elitsa Koleva

Starting March 7, masks will be optional in school

Elitsa Koleva, Staff Writer

Westford Public Schools (WPS) will no longer require masks to be worn during school hours by students and staff starting Monday, March 7. The School Committee voted in favor of the decision, 4-3 on Feb. 14.

Officially, the mandate ends March 4, so students playing sports or doing other extracurricular activities over the weekend before the 7th will be allowed to take off their masks. As of right now, the mask mandate on WPS buses has been lifted since Tuesday, March 1 while masks will still be required in the nurse’s offices until further notice per Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) and Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) guidelines.

The changes in COVID-19 policy came amidst the significant decrease in COVID cases in WPS, with 55 total cases in February compared to 279 in January. In addition to that, vaccination rates in Westford have been increasing, according to the Westford Board of Health during their Feb. 17 meeting. The CDC has also already approved booster shots for teens and adults, along with vaccines for children above the age of five.

March 7 was an override of the state’s DESE decision, which ended mask mandates throughout Massachusetts schools on Feb. 28, the day after vacation.

The reason why the Westford School Committee voted to extend the date on Feb. 14 was due to the many families traveling over break and the increased transmission of COVID. According to school committee member Alicia Mallon, the week after break will be a “week of data”, ensuring that schools do not see a spike in COVID cases.

Many people were relieved with the postponement, if not supportive of the families wanting the extra time.

“I think that the date would have been greeted with more adversity if the decision-makers were not sensitive to [the fact that many families traveled over break],” French teacher Katrina Lackner said. “One more week was tolerable for all but built confidence for those that needed it.” 

However, there were also people who thought the extra week unnecessary.

I think that taking the masks off on the 28th would have been fine since so much research had been put in by our state leadership to inform the decision,” sophomore Adam Wedlake said. “[But] I can see both arguments, and seeing how close the school committee vote was, it’s clear that this issue has many views.”

Generally, many students are planning on taking off their masks once the mandate ends.

“I believe that 50 percent or more students and staff will likely take their masks off this coming Monday. I really hope that people respect whichever option that students and staff choose. I myself will not be wearing a mask,” Wedlake said.

Others are more concerned about the high-risk families and children under five who are not vaccinated and will continue to wear their masks.

“Masks do not interfere with our ability to function or learn,” freshman Maggie Burrows said. “If wearing a piece of cloth around our mouths is going to save lives, I am willing to do it.” 

Student Council Vice President and junior Meghna Kumar hopes students can work together to ensure the comfort and safety of everyone around them.

“Let’s say a high-risk student sits near you. You could put your mask on for that class and you can clean your hands,” Kumar said. 

In addition to the controversy surrounding masks, teachers have noted the rough transition period between masking and unmasking. 

“Just as mask-wearing habits developed at different rates for different people, I think unmasking will occur in the same fashion.  Everyone has a different comfort level and we will need to work together to respect the needs of each individual as we try out this next stage in the COVID process,” Lackner said. 

In the long run, the new policy will have an impact on student classroom learning and social interactions.

“I hope that students feel liberated to share their points of view more readily and that they will feel relaxed and enjoy their high school experiences for the better. Relationships will hopefully become even stronger as our community finally begins to see the faces of its members,” Lackner said. 

WA Principal James Antonelli has sent out an email reminding teachers to be mindful and accepting of students wearing masks. According to School Committee Chairman Chris Sanders, statements made by teachers such as “it is nice to see your faces” are inappropriate.

“While that is a natural human response to a relief of over two years of masking, this could potentially create an inequitable, not inclusive environment for students who are masked,” Sanders said. 

Above all, it is important to create an environment where everybody is able to make their own choices, according to Superintendent Christopher Chew.