New Hampshire says schools now barred from mandating masks

  • Rivendell Academy school nurse Creigh Moffatt changes her mask often during the day on Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021, in Orford, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News file photograph — Jennifer Hauck

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    Avery Robinson, 6, looks at her mask while she sits with her father, Dave Robinson, as he puts on his shoes before they leave for school at their home in Haverhill, N.H., on Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021. Robinson, who says he is frustrated that masks have become a political issue, wants masks to be required in school so that children are able to attend school in person in a safe environment. "I want to see masks on kids because I want to see kids in school," he said. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Published: 2/23/2022 9:39:26 PM
Modified: 2/23/2022 9:39:08 PM

CONCORD — New Hampshire schools will no longer be able to mandate masks under the state’s new public health guidance on COVID-19.

Until Wednesday, the state recommended mask wearing in most indoor public spaces. With that recommendation dropped, schools that try to maintain mandates would run afoul of state laws requiring that each student be provided equitable access to education, Gov. Chris Sununu said.

“I don’t think this should be viewed as a drastic change or measure; it’s just kind of another step forward as we continue to return to the old normal,” Sununu said. “We know that masking can be a very powerful tool in times of surging transmissibility, but it obviously has drawbacks, especially for kids in schools and those with disabilities.”

Schools will be given some time to transition their policies, given that students will be on vacation next week, the governor said. It’s unclear how many districts currently mandate masks; the Department of Education said it does not have a current tally.

The change reflects a recent drop in both new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations statewide.

“The risk from COVID-19 is decreasing,” said Dr. Benjamin Chan, the state epidemiologist. “We are recommending that face masks be worn based on individual preference and individual choice.”

Though Claremont schools dropped their mask requirements at the beginning of this week, many others in the Upper Valley still require masks. Vermont school officials have said that schools with a student vaccination rate of 80% or higher may consider dropping mask requirements.

SAU 70 Superintendent Jay Badams said that Hanover schools are still complying with the town’s mask ordinance, which has been in effect since August when case counts began to rise. But the schools’ Pandemic Response Committee has been considering modifying its mask policy based on case counts, positivity rates and individual school vaccination rates, he said.

“We will continue to work with our public health advisers, school nurses, and town officials as we modify our COVID precautions,” he said.

In Lebanon, the School Board was scheduled to take up mask requirements at its meeting on Wednesday night, hours after Sununu’s pronouncement.

Neither of the Twin States has had a statewide mask mandate in place since last spring. Several municipalities in the Upper Valley, including Hanover and Lebanon, still require masks in indoor public spaces. Those requirements won’t change everywhere immediately, but it’s unclear how much longer they will last at the municipal level.

Masks are on the agenda for next week’s City Council meeting in Lebanon, City Manager Shaun Mulholland said. There may be a public hearing on March 16 to rescind the mask ordinance, he said.

“That will be up to the council to decide,” he said.

Lebanon Assistant Mayor Clifton Below said he’d like to hear what local health officials think about dropping the mask requirement. But, he said, “Things have been going in the right direction. … We’re getting close.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to recommend indoor masking in communities with high and substantial transmission of COVID-19. That still includes much of the country including the four counties of the Upper Valley.

“We continue to await guidance from the CDC, which has been the entity we have continued to look to for data-driven guidance,” Hanover Town Manager Julia Griffin said in a Wednesday email. “Once the CDC decides to update their guidance on masks, we will then coordinate with both Dartmouth and our school district before we make a decision.”

The New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services continues to recommend masks in health care settings and on public transportation, in accordance with federal rules.

Sununu said during Wednesday’s news conference that the state’s decision to change mask recommendations was based on a number of factors, including the effectiveness of vaccines and the declining number of COVID cases and hospitalizations, which have come down below 100 after reaching highs near 500 earlier this winter.

The number of daily cases has dramatically declined over the last several weeks, which Sununu compared to a ski slope. The average number of new cases is approximately equal to the number of daily new cases in September 2021, before the surge in omicron cases.

Whether or not to mask will largely be individual choice now, Chan said. Granite Staters should weigh their circumstances, including whether they are vaccinated, whether they have comorbidities or merely if they want additional protection for themselves or family members.

“What’s important moving forward is understanding — it’s not about mask-shaming or anything like that,” Sununu said.

State officials, on Wednesday, left the door open to changing mask recommendations if a new, more dangerous variant gains traction or if the fall brings another COVID-19 surge, as it has the last two years.

“A lot of data is going to change and we’ll look at all of that as we go from the summer into the fall,” Sununu said.

Chan, who announced the change in guidance during a Wednesday news conference, said COVID-19 no longer poses the risk it once did now that many people have immunity from vaccines or infection.

He said the current iteration of the virus also causes less severe illness than prior variants.

Following the news conference, the Department of Education sent out a “technical advisory” on face coverings in schools, which said that if schools don’t drop their mask requirements they will risk coming into conflict with rules from the department.

For example, a mask requirement could violate schools’ obligation to meet “the instructional needs of each individual student”; to promote “a school environment that is conducive to learning”; and to meet “the special physical health needs of students,” the advisory said.

The department’s advisory echoed statements Sununu made during the news conference.

The governor said schools that maintain mask mandates may be in violation of students’ rights now that state health officials no longer recommend masks, Sununu said.

“If a school district isn’t providing a fair and equitable education as the law requires them to, I imagine they would face some legal challenges,” he said.

Information from the Concord Monitor was used in this report.




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