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In polling and in local politics, division persists after Sununu lifts NH’s mask mandate

  • Granite State Panel survey on masks by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center

  • Granite State Panel survey on masks by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center

  • Weare Middle school on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

Published: 4/21/2021 9:54:43 PM
Modified: 4/21/2021 9:55:33 PM

Granite Staters are divided over Gov. Chris Sununu’s decision to end the statewide mask mandate, including one school board member in Weare who has proposed ending the mask requirement within the school district.

The same week schools returned to five-day-a-week in-person learning due to Sununu’s executive order and days after the governor lifted the statewide mask mandate, Weare school board member Rochelle Kelley proposed changing the district’s mask requirement to make face coverings in schools optional for students. Currently in Weare, masks are required for both school staff and students, a safety measure that was baked into an agreement with the teachers union at the beginning of the school year.

“I think having a recommendation for masks would be the best thing, and then giving families the option to not wear a mask,” Kelley said at Tuesday’s meeting. “We recommend the masks, then if they choose not to wear a mask for whatever reason, then they don’t.”

In arguing for the change, Kelley cited the expiration of the state mask mandate, and current state DHHS guidelines for schools, which have masks as a recommendation, but not a requirement.

Meanwhile, the rest of the state has had a mixed reaction to the expiration of the state mask mandate.

A new survey published Wednesday by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center shows 48% of Granite Staters oppose the governor’s decision to end the mandate, while 43% support it. This division is playing out at as towns, businesses and school districts grapple with how to accommodate those who do and do not want masks.

In Chichester, an in-person Select Board meeting was adjourned April 6 and rescheduled after one board member declined to wear a mask. A Pembroke Academy track coach gained national media attention after he was fired April 5 for refusing to require his student athletes to wear masks in accordance with New Hamphisre Interscholastic Athletic Association recommendations.

The Weare School Board, which has been meeting remotely, has also been discussing how to hold in-person meetings when at least one board member — Kelley — will not be masked, and there may be a mix of both masked and non-masked audience members. They agreed on the cafeteria, a large space that can hold up to 100 people spaced 6 feet apart.

In the UNH survey, opinions about the decision to lift the mask mandate largely fell on party lines.

Of the nearly 2,000 respondents, who were selected to participate randomly by their phone numbers, most Democrats were opposed to the governor’s action, while nearly 80% of Republicans supported the decision. Independents were evenly divided.

The survey also revealed varying perceptions of risk experienced based on party affiliation. More than half of Republicans said they would feel comfortable going to a large concert after the mask mandate expired while only 6% of Democrats could say the same.

About 57% of respondents said they would feel comfortable eating at a restaurant after the end of the mask mandate.

Weare Superintendent Jaqueline Coe said following the recommendations from the Department of Health and Human Services gives the district a specific framework to follow.

“When we were doing the reopening plans, we had to figure out where to seek guidance, and the plans I presented had DHHS as our guidance on public health epidemiology,” Coe said. “Those reopening plans, I did have our lawyer look at them and they advised it limited our liability from a practical perspective if we did remain consistent with DHHS guidelines.”

Weare School Board member Christine Heath spoke about guideline consistency, saying families made the decision to send their students back to in-person learning Monday based on the current guidelines that are in place.

“What I’m saying is, some parents chose to take their children out of learn-at-home based on the guidelines they had in place at the time. And by changing it now, you’re changing what they were sending their children back to,” Heath said.

The mask discussion will be on the agenda for the Weare School Board’s next meeting May 18, where families and employees are encouraged to make public comment.

Last September, Kelley was one of three people charged with defying police orders to leave a Concord playground in April that was closed due to precautions over COVID-19. Kelley, who was inside the roped-off playground with children, was charged with misdemeanor counts of criminal mischief and disorderly conduct.

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