WSESU schools drop holdout mask mandate

Facing public pressure, district makes masking optional for kids after a confusing process

BRATTLEBORO — The Windham Southeast School District will belatedly join the rest of the state in making classroom masks a choice after a special meeting crowd of more than 500 people registered nearly three hours of complaint.

At first, Brattleboro Union High School and elementary classrooms in Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford, and Putney told families they would adopt the Vermont Agency of Education's new relaxed Covid-19 recommendations beginning March 14.

“We have followed the guidance set out by our local health professionals from the beginning of this pandemic and we will continue to do so,” interim Superintendent Mark Speno wrote in an email.

But just before the change, the district announced it would reverse course.

“I have been informed by the WSESD School Board that they would like to rescind the masking-optional decision in favor of holding an in-person public forum,” Speno wrote in a second email. “Masks for students, staff and visitors will continue to be mandated.”

That spurred several hundred people to gather at the BUHS auditorium on March 15 for a special meeting that drew an additional 300 online attendees.

After nearly three hours of public comment, in which many asked why the district was no longer following state and federal guidance, the school board acknowledged it never took an official vote on the issue.

Instead, the incoming chair said she had requested the delay.

“We were asked for some additional information on how students at risk were going to be accommodated,” Chair Kelly Young said. “I was trying to address the concerns of the public.”

“It's pretty clear that you would like the mask mandate lifted, and I respect that,” Young added. “I will rescind my request.”

Several parents who spoke Tuesday questioned how the change would affect children who are immunocompromised or not yet eligible to be vaccinated.

But many more talked about students who they said have been challenged by breathing issues, speech and language development, and overall mental health.

“I would just ask everybody to please keep in mind that there are special needs children who need to see faces,” one mother said.

With one exception, students took to the microphone to support the relaxed rules.

“The question for me,” high school junior Magdalena Keppel said, “is why are we now as a community not choosing to follow the guidance of the experts that have studied this, and we have been listening to, for the past two years?”

Other members of the public used the meeting to applaud school staff and Speno, who is the subject of an online petition seeking his permanent hiring.

“Across the state of Vermont, there are a large number of districts currently conducting superintendent searches and a dearth of qualified and willing candidates to fill them,” local writer and educator Jaimie Scanlon wrote as one of almost 800 signers.

“Mark stepped up to lead the district in a time of crisis and has done an excellent job,” she said.